LARSON: Morality can’t be prescribed

What defines a liberal arts education? What must we require of those who aspire to one? These are questions that even top liberal arts colleges can’t agree on; the University of Chicago demands that its students study a prescribed core, while Brown offers students total freedom.

Yale, with its distribution requirements, charts a middle course. Harry Graver (“Lucretius at Yale,” Jan. 12) argues that Yale teaches students only to deconstruct societal precepts, rather than to learn respect and reverence for “intellectual institutional authority.” The cure? We all study “ancient and modern political philosophy along with a theological, nonsecular history of Western religious tradition” and thereby come to a fuller set of values.

My foremost interests have always been in the humanities, and I would appreciate it if everyone revered the Western canon. However, Graver’s specific injunctions as to what we should be required to learn — political philosophy and religion — struck me as bizarre. Where were Homer and Vergil and Shakespeare? Why was literature — the part of the canon I think most important — excluded?

If Graver’s goal was for Yale to play a more active role in shaping our values, why did he choose political philosophy as a must while excluding ethical philosophy? Most important, what are the values Graver intends us to gain from reading his favored parts of the Western canon?

These questions illustrate the immense challenge of designing a core humanities curriculum in the modern world. When the only texts taught at college were in Latin or Greek, it was possible to separate must-reads from less important texts. Now, however, the canon includes the works of 3,000 years of history written in as many (well, not quite) languages. Which are the core disciplines now — let alone the core texts?

Graver objects to how Yale “presents itself as a mutable entity to be designed uniquely in each iteration,” but the very canon he wishes Yale to steady itself upon is precisely that. It is always being changed by new works and old works newly thought relevant.

Who we consider to have been great is based on when we live — Catullus and Lucretius were for centuries considered blasphemous, Romantic poets were disdained by T.S. Eliot and other modernists, while metaphysical poets such as Donne had to be rediscovered by Eliot to gain significance.

Poets (and philosophers or theologians) become important or unimportant because of the needs of any particular moment. No tradition, and certainly no institution, can claim to be impervious to time. A cursory glance at the ethnic and gender makeup of Yale’s student body 60 years ago shows that this is not a bad thing.

At the end of the day, there are too many things each of us should know for any of us to actually know all of them. A programmer could argue that everyone should know the basics of a computer language. A math major probably thinks it’s ridiculous we’re not required to learn linear algebra. Science students may say their subjects teach us more than anything else about the world around us.

And any student of a non-Western religious, literary or historical tradition, of which there are many, can complain that his field has been systematically neglected and degraded for centuries. None of these areas offer the “transcendent metric” Graver thinks we should have, but neither, for that matter, does the Western cannon, which is full of great thinkers arguing about what our values should be.

I sympathize with Graver’s sense that Yale doesn’t instill students with a sense of moral obligation to causes beyond their own pleasure or advancement. But requiring that all students read Plato won’t give them better values. Teaching religion, as Graver suggests in passing, might add a moral element to our education, but at a price far greater than most of us would ever choose to pay. It would raise denominational conflicts, relegate nonbelievers to an inferior status and imply that the only legitimate path to morality is through a God that half of us don’t believe in.

And if Yale students lack a transcendent moral framework, most of us do agree on what good behavior is: being a good friend, remembering those less fortunate than ourselves, working hard and not cheating. We think these things even while we might differ in our religions, which books we read or even how we understand the same book. Yale should focus on making these values a fuller part of our daily life by focusing on what we do rather than who we read.

Harry Larson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at