The merit of featuring Western civilization courses in undergraduate curriculums has been widely debated since the late 1980s, and it continues to be debated today. Students at universities that require these classes have alleged the content to be “too white, too male and too Eurocentric,” while students at schools without such mandatory curricula have argued that they instead afford essential academic context while “promot[ing] values conducive to individual liberty and collective prosperity.” Amidst these debates over “Great Books” courses, Emory charted an innovative middle ground in 2012: the Voluntary Core Curriculum. The program’s elective nature gives students the ability to better acquaint themselves with historical texts that inform contemporary debates, without imposing contestable content upon the entire student body. As Spring course registration approaches, underclassmen should consider incorporating the program into their schedules.
The Voluntary Core Curriculum offers an interdisciplinary set of classes that allows students to interact with not just the Western literary canon, but also with key texts from physics, sociology and even paleontology. Courses are specifically designed for freshmen and sophomores to familiarize themselves with a field’s foundations, easing the transition into upper-level undergraduate study. For instance, my reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” a text foundational to American history and politics, helped me better comprehend works in later courses that referenced it.
Emory’s Voluntary Core is about more than reading books other people have deemed “great.” The program also forces students to grapple with the implications of their alleged greatness. Canons, or collections of “great” works, are inherently exclusive; there’s a reason professors select the texts they do for each course. By taking these Core classes, students gain insight into not just the texts themselves, but the social context behind their purported value.
Some may criticize the curriculum’s focus on the “West” as imperialist, and recent alt-right fetishization of the West builds upon that argument. But abandoning the academic study of the Western project is an overreaction; even French philosopher Jacques Derrida, famed for his role in developing deconstruction, argued that “[he didn’t] start with disorder; [he] start[ed] with the tradition.” While some may point to the West’s racist legacy (and even Derrida’s) as reasons to avoid studying it at all, students can better prepare themselves to challenge structural inequality by learning how and why certain ideas have dominated others in the past.
While Audre Lorde correctly says that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” the meandering course of institutional change can be best expedited by well-read citizens, and the gaps that enable radical change can be torn open from the inside. The value of studying the Western canon isn’t that its texts rest on a pedestal of rationality above diffuse and disorganized “identity studies”; rather, it’s that these texts are still so fundamental in constructing Western identity. Furthermore, deliberately ignoring the Western tradition only ensures that the worst forms of the West continue; glossing over John Locke’s political theory, foundational to the Constitution, or even skipping the Constitution itself gives hardliners like Justice Brett Kavanaugh the opportunity to manipulate those texts for malevolent legal ends.
Outside the curricular merit of studying the Western canon, the Voluntary Core offers students valuable out-of-class experiences. Students are required to attend or watch the Emory Williams Lectures, which have recently ranged in subject matter from the U.S. Constitution’s repressive origins to important studies in animal cognition. The series has recruited professors from across Emory’s diverse departmental offerings as well as from different academic institutions, giving students broad exposure to interdisciplinary foundations.
Students in the Voluntary Core are also encouraged to apply for the Franklin Fellows program, which offers continued canonical exposure designed for upper-level undergraduates. On-campus, fellows participate in reading groups and film discussions. Off-campus, the program provides transportation to and tickets for theatrical and orchestral performances. The first time I saw a live performance of an original Shakespeare production was through the fellows program, an experience I likely would not have sought out on my own.
Emory’s Voluntary Core Curriculum has greatly enriched my Emory experience, and while I recognize the program certainly isn’t for everyone — it is voluntary, after all — I hope that more students will choose to participate in this valuable facet of the College.
Isaiah Sirois (19C) is from Nashua, N.H.