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The Elective System

Until the nineteenth century, colleges and universities had a strict set of subjects that students had to master before they could obtain a degree. Then in the 1890's the "elective system" was adopted by many leading institutions: "as required courses were dropped and elective courses of study became even more directly tied to occupational interests, the idea of acquaintance with a fixed body of knowledge, classical or otherwise, as a mark of the educated person began to disappear."[1] This process has been attributed to the influence of the emerging German research universities. However, Richard Ely, an economist who did his graduate work in Germany believes that this was the result of a misconception:

What misled so many American educators and presidents of American universities was that apparently all the work in a German university was elective. They erred seriously in imaging that they were turning American colleges into German universities by making studies elective and optional... The German university was a professional school... Each student had in mind an examination which was to admit him to a means of livelihood and he pursued only the studies required for passing it... Public authorities minutely prescribed requirements for these examinations. In this way they controlled the university courses.[2]

Whether through required courses or through required examination topics, there is a need for guidance as to what is considered to be valuable knowledge. In the 1970's, there was a trend towards returning to more structure:

In a sense, a college that moves toward a more structured curriculum is making two decisive affirmations. The first is that the faculty has the responsibility to state what in its judgment constitutes a sound education for college students... a failure to do so reveals a lack of confidence in the possibility of establishing agreed-upon priorities, of expressing basic educational aims or of establishing a common basis for intellectual discourse... The second affirmation made in the adoption of a structured curriculum is that the faculty can identify a number of academic disciplines and present them in an educational setting so as to establish priorities as well as requirements for the degree.[3]

Core Requirements

Must schools have adopted a set of  "core requirements" attempting to expose students to some breadth of knowledge. Unfortunately, in the larger schools there are so many choices that can fulfill each requirement, that the end result is often only slightly better that a full elective system. On the other hand, there are some interesting and unique core programs, such as the sequence required by Gordon College:[4]

The Great Conversation: Foundations in Thinking, Reading and Writing- Develops disciplines of listening and reading, speaking and writing, with emphasis on developing writing process through engaging multiple forms and drafts, and giving and receiving feedback. Readings and discussion focus on the question: “What is the good life?” Related themes include love, vocation, Christian character, community and justice/shalom.

Introduction to the Old Testament- Examines the books of the Old Testament in their historical, cultural, and literary contexts. Highlights significant themes and theological messages of the Old Testament books, as well as the overarching narrative of the Old Testament. 

Introduction to the New Testament- Examines the books of the New Testament in their political, social, geographic, literary, and religious contexts. Highlights important themes of each book, as well as the New Testament’s primary message.

Christian Theology- Introduces key ideas, traditions and people who have shaped the development of Christian theology from antiquity to the present. Considers importance of theology as foundation for Christian thought, as guide to the Church, and as a primary resource for living reflective lives and engaging broader world with the gospel.

The Examined Life- Introduces important historical and thematic issues about what it means to be human: our place in the natural world and in the broader cosmos; theories about nature and limits of our knowledge; conceptions of beauty and art; what it means to live well as individuals and in community; and perspectives on our relationship to God. (May be substituted with other philosophy courses.)

Historical Perspectives on Culture, Belief and Civilization- Examines culture building, development and change, and interaction of diverse peoples across a broad swathe of history. Explores Christianity from its Middle Eastern roots through Renaissance/Reformation to global cultures of contemporary world in political, technological, social and cultural contexts. Investigates Christian traditions, missionary endeavors, reform movements, and relationships between adherents of different world religions. Introduces critical evaluation of historical evidence.

The Scientific Enterprise- Explores characteristics of natural science, studies theories related to fundamental concepts such as matter and energy to help understand patterns and processes in nature. Stresses relevance of science to contemporary issues and a Christian worldview.

Theology and Philosophy

Of course the most distinctive element of a Christian university is the presence of a theology department. Sometimes the distinction is made between theology and religious studies. Although this terminology is not used consistently, religious studies is most often used for "survey of religion" type of courses, while theology concentrates on a particular faith tradition. Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame emphasizes the distinction:

I would suggest that a theological faculty, dedicated to a Christian tradition in general and serious about its own denominational heritage in particular, is an essential part of the self-identity of a denominational school. Religious studies as an encompassing field may well be appropriate for a secular school, but theology is a discipline, and its absence from the curriculum of a religious school is, in my estimation an abdication of responsibility.[5]

A theology department, in order to make unique contributions to knowledge and wisdom, must work from within a faith tradition, and its task is to "on the highest level of intellectual inquiry, seek out the relevance of the Christian message to all of the problems and opportunities that face modern man in a complex world."[6] Of course, the inclusion of courses on other religious traditions is stimulating and enriching, especially if they are presented by faculty members from those faiths.

Most Christian schools also include a philosophy department or at least philosophy courses. Throughout history, Christian thought has made use of philosophic analysis as an allied discipline in order to work through and express the Christian message at an intellectual level. "The presence of philosophy and theology simply completes the total field of inquiry, raises additional and ultimate questions, moves every scholar to look beyond his immediate field of vision to the total landscape of God and man and the universe."[7]

[1] Christopher J. Lucas, American Higher Education: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan , 2006), 176.

[2] Richard Ely, Ground Under Our Feet (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938), 53-54.

[3] Robert Roth, "The Colleges and the Curriculum" in America, April 5, 1980, 293.

[4] Gordon College Core Courses

[5] Lawrence S. Cunningham, "Gladly Wolde he Lerne and Gladly Teche: The Catholic Scholar in the New Millennium" in The Cresset, June, 1992, 318.

[6] Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., The Hesburgh Papers (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1979), 41.

[7] Ibid. , 44.