Certificate Program in Core Texts and Ideas
The Certificate Program in Core Texts and Ideas, our recommended program for undergraduates, is an introduction to the liberal arts through the study of the great books. It is open to all UT undergraduates and will complement any major with an integrated sequence of six courses that can also meet UT general education requirements. The program consists of four common courses and two electives, all based on great books and other primary texts. In the required courses students will study:
- Classical philosophy and literature, especially from ancient Greece;
- Texts of major world religions, including the Hebrew Bible and New Testament;
- The tradition of political philosophy in the West from Aristotle to Nietzsche;
- The principles of American government as they were debated by the framers of the Constitution and as they have played out in subsequent American political life.
Elective courses are available in philosophy, literature, the arts, history, the social sciences, the history and philosophy of science and mathematics, the great books of the East, and other subjects.
This program is offered to undergraduates in all colleges of the University. To register, please sign up with our academic advisor, Nathan Vickers.
An Integrated Core Curriculum
The four required areas are designed to acquaint students with many of the most powerful ideas of the human mind and especially of western civilization as it emerged out of its twin roots in Jerusalem and Athens and developed through centuries of deep reflection on and debate about human nature, the meaning of life, and man’s place in the cosmos. Through this sequence of courses, students will find that books from many cultures, epochs, and fields of study are engaged in an ongoing, mutually enlightening, but often fiercely contested conversation about the meaning of life, the power and reach of human knowledge, and the fundamental principles of ethics and politics. Inviting students to enter into this dialogue, the program will train them in writing, critical reasoning, and questioning; it will encourage them to think in an interdisciplinary way; and it will give them a perspective on and a capacity to respond thoughtfully to the urgent challenges and conflicts of our own time.
Students will begin by exploring two rival visions of the best life that have shaped our own tradition of great books in the West, one exemplified in the reverent faith of Abraham and the other in the skeptical questioning of Socrates. They will consider different answers to the questions of where and whether definitive guidance for human life is to be found, what the proper place is of religion in human life, and what the proper relation is between religious and political authorities. They will study the schools of thought that have emerged from a fruitful interplay between the ideas drawn from Jerusalem and Athens, sometimes resulting in grand syntheses and sometimes in fierce contests.
Thus one great cluster of questions students will study will concern the relation of reason to revelation. Another will concern the idea of human nature, including the question of what is constant in human nature and the question of what the character is of human excellence, understood both as individual self-realization and self-transcendence. We will study theoretical, literary, and artistic works that shed light on these issues, including the meaning of heroic virtue and erotic love, the importance and the proper structure of the family, the problem and the potential for harnessing human ambition, the meaning of freedom, the requisites of true education, the constancy or malleability of human nature under the influence of culture and history, and the question of whether there are universal standards of right that transcend all cultures.
Delving more deeply into this last question, we will explore at length and from many angles the problem of justice. Here, too, the question has been the subject of sustained controversy since ancient times. We will explore philosophic debates about the relative merits of democracy, aristocracy, kingship, and theocracy; about the proper aims and limits of government; about the basis and character of human rights; and about the principles that should govern international relations.
Themes and Texts for the four Required Courses
The first requirement is our introductory course, Ancient Philosophy and Literature, or an approved equivalent. This course introduces students to some of the greatest works of ancient Greece, the cradle of the ideal of political liberty, or republicanism, and likewise of the ideal of the liberty of the mind, embodied in the daring and unprecedented enterprise of philosophy, which sought to find guidance for life in unassisted human reason. Common elements in this course will be at least one work of classical epic or tragedy and at least one dialogue of Plato, through which students will study the political and moral thought of Socrates, the philosopher who in Cicero’s words “brought philosophy down from the heavens and forced it to attend to political things.” Major themes of this course will be the Greeks’ rich articulations of the relative merits and dangers of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; the theme of “enlightenment” or the question of how far political life can be guided by human reason and what place religion should have in a healthy polity; and the theme of “autonomy” or individual self-determination, resting on knowledge of oneself and human nature. In addition to Plato, authors studied may include Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, Plutarch, Epicurus, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Tacitus, and other ancient thinkers, both Western and Eastern.
The second requirement is a course in fundamental texts of world religions, especially the Bible. Several courses are available to fulfill this requirement. In each of them students will reflect on the fundamental ethical and theological teachings of the texts and the different ways they have been interpreted and applied by the communities they have inspired. In addition to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, readings may include the Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhist writings, and scriptures of other religions.
The third requirement is a course in the history of political thought, focusing on the ongoing dialogue in Western thought about rights, political legitimacy, the proper functions and limits of government, and the principles that should govern international relations. Common texts for this course will be Aristotle’sNicomachean Ethics or Politics; Thomas Aquinas’ political writings; at least one foundational text of modern liberalism, such as Locke’s Second Treatise of Government; and at least one late modern critic of liberal enlightenment principles. Other authors typically studied include Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, and Nietzsche; Eastern authors may be included as well.
The fourth requirement is a course on America’s constitutional principles, including the ideas of equality and liberty, individual rights, and the proper ends and limits of governmental power. Common readings for this course will be the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and Tocqueville’sDemocracy in America. Other readings may include writings by the Puritans, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, the anti-Federalists, presidential speeches, and supreme court cases. One version of this course will give special attention to the problems of slavery, segregation, and civil rights, as well as the writings of leading African Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, and Martin Luther King.
In designing the four required courses for our program, we have sought to strike a balance between two important pedagogical aims: first, exposing students to a number of the authors and schools of thought that have had an especially powerful influence in shaping our own world; and second, encouraging the innovation and intellectual excitement that can happen only when gifted teachers have significant freedom to teach the books they find most compelling and to do so in their own way. Thus the prescribed elements for each course are only starting points; in each course the instructor will make selections from the designated authors’ works and will make different additions to them.