Magdalen got a report card. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) examined 1,135 major colleges and universities in the country. Institutions earn a grade based on the degree to which they require students to take academic courses covering the broad sweep of the arts and sciences.
Magdalen College was one of only seven colleges to receive a perfect score, requiring courses in all selected subject areas. This places Magdalen in the top 1% of schools on this measure.
The ACTA study reveals some concerning data about the state of higher education today. Fewer than onethird of colleges require students to take a literature course. Fewer than one-fifth require a foundational course in U.S. Government or History. According to ACTA, the latter is “particularly alarming, given our deteriorating public discourse.”
Moreover, students paying more than $60,000 a year to attend Amherst, Brown, Vassar, and Wesleyan are not expected to take a single course in any of the seven core subjects, including math, science, or foreign language!
As education policy expert Frederick Hess wrote in Forbes Magazine, “It’s an odd statement but, amidst today’s higher education landscape, those seeking colleges that take liberal education seriously may be well-advised to seek more ‘conservative’ institutions.”
Actually, that’s not odd at all. Colleges like Magdalen seek to preserve a time-tested educational tradition in the West, which remembers that the word ‘curriculum’ comes from the Latin word currere, meaning “to run the course”. A good course of study has a set starting point and progresses along a clear track that leads to an intentional destination. Rather than offering a smorgasbord of disconnected subjects, a well-designed curriculum takes students along a purposeful journey, arriving at a certain end or telos.
For centuries in the West, this journey took shape as a “path of wisdom” that was based on several assumptions: First, educators assumed that reality— what there is to know—has a certain order to it, what Richard Weaver called “the deep-laid order of things.” This order was established by God—it’s objective in nature—and it includes things visible and invisible, concrete and abstract (the physical and numerical order as well as the moral and spiritual order).
Second, educators held that the process of coming to understand this multi-dimensional reality also has a certain order to it, what Thomas Aquinas referred to as “the proper order of learning.” This means taking questions in due order—establishing sound first principles and then progressing to particulars.
Magdalen’s program of studies is structured around the “deep-laid” order that inheres in both the universe and our way of coming to know it. We take students along a deliberate ascent of knowledge, which includes learning how to write and think well, exploring the physical, numerical, spatial, and musical order of the universe, using reason to contemplate works of literature, history, and philosophy, and engaging the Divine Creator Himself: the first cause and final end of all that exists.
This is not a modern choose-your-own-adventure-story approach to education. Rather, it’s an intentional, comprehensive curriculum that deliberately goes somewhere—it leads to wisdom.