Article by Olivia Griffin and Caleb Wong
When we both entered the University of Texas as Plan II Honors majors in the fall of 2014, we thought we would share a common liberal arts and sciences education. We thought we would share a common, rigorous experience that would allow us to talk about the same books and ideas with our peers, even if we took different professors. We thought that we would be able to relate to alumni who had gone through the same program, with future students or even when shooting the bull late at night.
Plan II’s website persuaded us to come with a promising description of a four-year program that covers philosophy, social science, non-US history, tutorials, science, and mathematics. It’s supposed to give students a common experience via the rigor of a small, selective program. “The core curriculum creates a common experience that allows for a high level of conversation among Plan II students and graduates, thus creating a broad-based interdisciplinary community with a shared vocabulary and range of concerns,” reads a statement on the program’s aims.
Yes, our education is rigorous, but it doesn’t share a vocabulary and range of concerns. Plan II students can take different versions of required courses having read little-to-nothing in common with each other. Despite Plan II’s “rigid curriculum,” individual professors have a great degree of flexibility in crafting the literature and philosophy courses. Some students have read Dante’s Divine Comedy — others found their spirit animal. This sounds great, until you feel isolated because you can’t talk about the same book with others outside of your freshman world literature course or tutorial seminar course.
Asked about the design of the core curriculum, Plan II director and French professor Alexandra Wettlaufer said professors bring their unique expertise to the table as experts in specific areas of study. She said the program already has students in optional discussion groups through the Plan II Common Read, which brings students together to read and discuss a shared text.
“Pedagogically, I would be uncomfortable saying, ‘This is the curriculum of the only books you can read’ because none of us knows them all. Some professor is going to bring in something fascinating from Korea that I don’t know about. Keeping flexibility is important.”
We agree: with 30 elective hours that fall outside of Plan II’s core curriculum, students can pick and choose individualized courses that allow them to explore their interests.
However, with the hours that are dedicated to Plan II’s foundational classes, the program’s administrators shouldn’t strive to further fragment an education that already allows for a great deal of flexibility. Its counterpart, Liberal Arts Honors, already offers students even more flexibility to pursue a specialized course of study after two years of core classes than the Plan II program. Giving students flexibility in the core curriculum won’t make Plan II unique; bringing students together in a unified curriculum will.
Instead, Plan II should create a common reading list of books and topics that everyone must read over four years. When we read the same books and study the same scientific theories that build logically off each other, we’ll be better prepared to have enriching conversations with each other about what we’ve read. We won’t be summarizing the outline of what we’ve read to each other; instead, we’ll be able to look together at the finer points of a Jane Austen novel or Hannah Arendt’s theories on the nature of political life.
The program needs to define our experience by making hard choices about what students will share in common. We don’t object to professors bringing their unique personalities and focus to the classroom.
However, when Plan II students haven’t read the same books or studied the same theories, it makes it harder to build connections on the subject matter with peers or with alumni. Because Plan II’s class of 2021 are compelled to choose between a dozen different world literature courses and a dozen seminar courses, first-year students begin to lose the ability to share books and literature they’ve read in common. We don’t just need a breadth and depth of courses to add intellectual rigor to the curriculum; we need camaraderie across classes and interests. That comes from reading the same texts, even among different professors.
As undergraduates, we aren’t qualified to decide what books we should read together. That said, we do know that by taking the world literature, philosophy, and tutorial courses restricted to our major, we should be able to talk about the same Shakespeare plays, or the same philosophers. But one can take world literature, philosophy, and tutorial courses that focus heavily on modern literature or a specialized focus by women writers, or one can take courses that are grounded heavily in “classical” Western civilization. Through fragmentation, the core curriculum exposes students to flashes of brilliance at the expense of coherence.
Parents of Plan II students buy bumper stickers that read, “My child and my money go to Plan II, and I don’t even know what the hell that is.” Unfortunately, that’s not just a joke. We hope the next Plan II students will have something we lacked: a common experience built not just around the same course numbers, but also the same texts and ideas.