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Great works missing from HPU currirulum

by Michael Coffey, '05

Education at HPU centers on five themes. Communication skills, values and choices, research and epistemology, global systems, and world cultures are the basis for education at HPU. At HPU political science and international relations threaten to follow the path of classics, described by Victor Davis Hanson in Who Killed Homer?, where the “dead, white, European males” of Western civilization are replaced by contemporary ideological fads. The professed themes at HPU provide a logical basis for education in the West because they are the basis for our free, open, and progressive civilization, but in practice, the themes are out of favor with modern universities. We derive these values from the great works of Greeks and Latins, but in our post-modern relativist society, teaching classical works, from the Greeks to our Founding Fathers, is considered inherently chauvinistic, antithetical to multiculturalism, and suggestive of civilizational superiority.


The very words used to describe our education – ethics, values, discourse, epistemology, inquiry, rhetoric, and morals – are Greek and Latin in origin. Communication skills, or the art of free, questioning, and critical speech is part of our modern society because of the Greeks. The ability to read, interpret, and argue are the basis for understanding Western civilization. The first chapters of Plato’s Republic introduced the reader to an inquiry into the nature of justice, displaying unrivaled communication skills while teaching the audience about values and choices. At HPU juniors and seniors read general textbooks, lacking intellectual depth, when they could be reading Locke and Plato. The architects of both modern and ancient democracy have more to say about speech and persuasion than a general survey textbook. The general education core curriculum should introduce students to certain themes and issues in textbooks, while upper-level classes can be devoted to the critical primary sources. I don’t expect our University to overturn the Zeitgeist of multiculturalism, but understanding any civilization, Western or otherwise, demands the serious reading of great primary works – the Bhagavad-Gita, Art of War, or Zen Teachings – not secondary authors. Values and Choices demand one exercise discriminating judgment, recognizing great works, and making them integral to our curriculum.

International relations and political science have suffered a similar detachment. The entire range of seminal ancient, medieval, and even modern thinkers are absent from our curriculum. World Problematique and History of Political Thought offer exceptions to that rule at HPU. International relations is not the sum of current events on the front page of the Washington Post’s “World” section, nor is it history lite. Reading important documents like the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers provides an understanding of the foundation of our society absent from general texts. Similarly, if a course proposes to understand Western civilization, the ancient texts must be inseparable from the curriculum. Reading great works does not supplant multicultural studies. Global citizenship is vital to HPU as a focal point for education in the Pacific, but the unfortunate result of “multiculturalism,” as it exists now at HPU is that students end up ignorant of foreign cultures as well as their own.

Multiculturalism’s great irony is that students do not read the great works of Chinese, Indian, and Persian civilization, but, instead they devote time to neo-leftist Western authors pillorying the West. The Politics of Culture and Race, concentrating on the American continent, eschews the great speeches of John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King in favor of secondary works like Audrey Smedley’s Race in America. African Diaspora and author Joseph Holloway examine how white American society, as a result of the slave trade, has come to embody characteristics of African culture, including certainly music, but also speech, etiquette, cuisine, and religion. American society becomes African rather than Western, and the development of Western philosophy from the Greeks to the Enlightenment loses its significance. Instead of teaching Luther, Aquinas, and Augustine, we read Ruth Karras, who relates the colorful lives of medieval prostitutes while Sex, Gender, and History provides a public forum for women to harangue the patriarchy. More importantly, and most distressingly, Thomas Hobbes is absent from International Studies, World Politics, and International Relations, replaced with excerpts of Patrick Buchanan and travelogues that, while entertaining, are not scholarly.

Great works exist in all cultures with philosophical freedom and a written language. St. John’s College is an anomaly in today’s society, and I am not suggesting our curriculum be composed entirely of classics. Currently our curriculum - for Political Science, International Relations, Humanities, Classics programs, and potentially History - is almost entirely devoid of the great works. Fewer than half a dozen classes examine these authors and writings, while many classes are available for marketing, commerce, and business. HPU focuses on students and undergraduate teaching. Assistants do not carry the burden of teaching, as they do at large research universities; most professors obviously enjoy teaching students. HPU’s Educational Effectiveness Planning Committee is designed to improve life at HPU. The most significant improvement HPU could make, setting itself above many other academic institutions in Hawai‘i and around the Pacific Rim, would be to institute Great Works in our curriculum and to reduce reliance on superficial, unenlightening secondary works.

Editor’s note: Dr. John Kearns, assistant dean for general education, at, welcomes student feedback on matters related to general education.


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