The Corner

Politics & Policy

Proof that Some College Students Still Want to be Challenged


A great many American college students are just in school for fun and to get a degree with as little effort as possible. But it’s clear that at least some students are not like that at all; they relish a demanding, well-taught course, even if it means doing tons of reading.

Evidence for that comes from, among other things, a remarkably demanding course that was begun a couple of years ago at the University of Oklahoma. It’s a course based on a class taught in 1941 at the University of Michigan by the famed poet W. H. Auden. In today’s Martin Center article, the prof who re-created Auden’s masterpiece, history professor Wilfred McClay, writes about the course.

McClay first explains Auden’s vision:

Beginning with the ancient Greek tragedians Aeschylus and Sophocles, the course covered the Roman poet Horace, then St. Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, a bouquet of Shakespeare plays, Pascal, Racine, Blake, Goethe, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Melville, Kafka, Eliot, and other certifiable greats, tossed in some then-classic scholarship about culture (including Ruth Benedict and C.S. Lewis), then washed it all down with the bubbly delights of nine opera libretti.

That was covered in a single semester. “Who could digest such a feast?” McClay asks.

The syllabus for Auden’s course was discovered in U of M archives in 2013 and McClay was taken with the possibility of teaching something based on it at Oklahoma. He and two faculty colleagues went about redesigning it as a two-semester course that still put huge demands on the students.

McClay writes of it, “The two-semester course that we developed tries to capture the same sweep, intellectual richness, and mingling of seriousness and delight that Auden’s syllabus embodied. To accomplish this, we added a few things to the master’s own list and removed others. For some reason, just to pick one example, Auden didn’t include any epics. We have presumed to improve on him by including the Odyssey, Aeneid, Beowulf, and Paradise Lost, texts that (with Dante) form the backbone of the course’s first semester.”

Many of their fellow faculty members scoffed that hardly any students would be interested.

Instead, however, the course proved to be very popular. Each semester, they have had to turn prospective students away.

Oklahoma’s Auden course stands athwart the debilitating trends of contemporary higher education. “We have broken every rule of the postmodern academy,” McClay states, “creating a highly demanding sequence of classic works, setting high expectations, and eschewing the grayness of theory and the reductionism of identity politics in favor of an intense engagement with the texts themselves. We insist upon literature as a distinctive form of knowledge and upon tradition as a source of creativity and insight.”

There is still reason for deep pessimism about American higher education, but this course offers a ray of hope.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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