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Belmont Abbey’s Curriculum Looks to the Past for Inspiration

Catholic college seeks to reinforce fundamental disciplines

At most colleges and universities, the concept of a core curriculum long has been passé. Except in their majors, students create their own curriculum, using whatever judgment they can muster at the age of 18.

At North Carolina State University, for example, students select their “general education” classes from loose categories such as the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, interdisciplinary perspectives, and even “additional breadth.”

In a nutshell, almost anything goes.

But if you are a student at Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic college near Charlotte, the case is quite different. Beginning this fall, students must take a core curriculum comprising 12 specific semester courses as well as electives in fields such as mathematics and fine arts.

What most differentiates Belmont Abbey is the courses on its required list: two semesters of rhetoric, two of classic texts in political philosophy, two in Western civilization, two in literary classics, a semester on the U.S. Constitution, and First-Year Symposium (a one-semester introduction to college life in a Catholic and Benedictine community; the school has an abbey on campus).

Rhetoric? Yes. The yearlong sequence Rhetoric I and II replaces Composition and Argumentative Prose (the two previous English introductory courses).

Ed Jones, director of marketing at Belmont Abbey, explains that “this two-course sequence is built upon the foundation of classical rhetoric, one of the seven original liberal arts.” It is “the course of study that not only gave rise to the timeless eloquence of Cicero, Augustine, Dante, and Shakespeare, but also animated the writings of America’s Founding Fathers.”

For these courses, the school has devised its own Belmont Abbey College Reader, a paperback anthology edited by associate professor of English Angela Mitchell Miss. It contains compelling texts ranging from poems by John Donne and Robert Frost to a speech by John F. Kennedy, Pericles’ funeral oration, and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography.

The return to rhetoric is the “most emblematic (and some might say radical) change,” says Jones. Rhetoric, grammar, and logic comprised the trivium in the Middle Ages — three disciplines providing the fundamentals of thinking, writing, and speaking.

In her introduction. Miss tells students, “You will see that the logical, grammatical, and rhetorical features of the written and spoken word can help you navigate your way through even the most complicated texts.”

Anne Carson Daly, vice president of academic affairs (and the driving force behind the curriculum revision) told the alumni magazine Crossroads that the return to rhetoric has its practical advantages. “Since many high schools have abdicated their responsibility in teaching how to write and speak, such an approach is not only sorely needed, but will also make our students better candidates for employment after they graduate.”

Other required courses are unusual, too. The course on the U. S. Constitution requires not only an education in the Constitution itself but reading selections from the founders’ writings, including James Madison’s Vices of the Political System of the United States, articles from the Federalist Papers, and George Washington’s Farewell Address.

Requiring political philosophy is consistent with the school’s fundamental concerns. Says Jones: “The proper study of political philosophy requires students to answer such questions as ‘What is a good life?’ ‘What is a good person?’ ‘What is virtue?’” Students are expected to “study the application of the principles they learn,” not just memorize theories.

In making these changes, Belmont Abbey is striving to retain and strengthen the school’s tradition of Catholic faith as well as integrate those traditions into a useful practical education that leads to jobs. As Daly said in a speech to freshmen a few years ago, ”our goal is to help you grow in knowledge and virtue.”

You can see why Ed Jones says of the curriculum, “What’s new about it? Essentially nothing.” That’s what makes it exciting, he explains.

Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (