Core Values

Santa Clara University’s curriculum periodically modified during the past century-and-a-half is based in tradition and shaped by innovation.

The Santa Clara University Bulletin states, “A university expresses its most basic values in its core curriculum, that part of an undergraduate education required of all students.” The past hundred years of curricular development at Santa Clara offer a significant glimpse into how SCU has determined and implemented its “basic values.” Through these years, Santa Clara has articulated its curriculum as it faced the tension endemic to all institutions·the struggle between tradition and innovation. It found itself pulled in different directions by the traditions that spawned it and the innovations invited by its constantly changing environments. A brief look at our curriculum 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and today demonstrates how the University confronted this inevitable tension.

University President William J. Rewak, S.J., addresses freshman students during orientation in 1984.

In December 1908 Lawrence Fernsworth, one month shy of his 18th birthday, traveled from Tillamook, Ore. and entered Santa Clara College. After a short series of interviews, he was quickly placed in four classes·Latin, Greek, geometry, and English·and began his college education. The curriculum that Fernsworth and his fellow students followed was traditional and highly prescribed. The typical freshman of a century ago took five hours a week of both Latin and Greek and four hours a week each of English, math, and drawing. He also took two hours a week of history and modern language (with German as the required language, but students able to substitute French, Spanish, or Italian), and one hour a week of both elocution and religion.

This course of study retained its prescriptive character throughout the entire college experience. Sophomore year was basically a carbon copy of freshman year, with science replacing drawing, but most else remaining the same. In junior year, Latin and Greek were replaced by chemistry and physics. In the same year, “mental philosophy,” an apparently hefty mix of “dialectics, critics, ontology, cosmology, rational psychology and theodicy,” was added. For senior year, the typical student’s class week consisted of five hours each of moral philosophy, physics, and math, four hours of theoretical mechanics (which alternated “at the discretion of the faculty” with chemistry, geology, and mineralogy), three hours of chemistry, and one hour each of higher English, advanced history, political economy, oratory, and philosophy of religion. In their free time, students could also avail themselves of a number of offerings in the fine arts, especially “music, instrumental and vocal.”

This course of study was based upon a venerable Jesuit document, the Ratio Studiorum, originated at the end of the 16th century and periodically updated since then. The Ratio laid out a highly structured education heavily based on classical languages and literature and on scholastic philosophy. But the curriculum that Fernsworth and his fellow students experienced was also marked by a series of innovations. These consisted of accommodations that Santa Clara’s Jesuits had made to the American and California environment. For instance, the Ratio envisioned a single, six-year course of studies, but by the early years of the century, Santa Clara had organized its courses into a recognizably American system of four years of college following four years of high school.

Students in the 1950s make the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Joseph in the Mission Gardens, a tradition since Santa Clara's early days.

Scientific methods

Another 19th century accommodation was the creation of a scientific course of study, in which students could earn a Santa Clara degree (the bachelor of science) without having to study the classical languages. This very popular degree program had been terminated almost two decades before Fernsworth arrived. It was opposed by some Jesuit faculty and superiors who believed the dropping of the classics symbolized a brazen abandonment of what made Santa Clara’s Jesuit education distinctive and truly valuable.

The most lasting accommodation was the “Commercial Department,” where students immersed themselves in “book-keeping, type-writing, and stenography.” The Commercial Certificate (it was not a formal degree) consisted of a series of courses in business in which the students replicated, as much as they could, the actual world of trade, even to the extent of printing their own money to be used in class-based transactions. The 1903 catalog trumpeted the practical value of this course of study: “As it not infrequently happens that young men, after having studied book-keeping for years, are much embarrassed in its implications in actual business transactions, the College offers the great advantage of a special department to obviate this difficulty. The object of this department is to represent the commercial world in miniature and thus afford students an opportunity of being thoroughly acquainted with the intricacies peculiar to each branch of business.”


Hybrid curriculum

Santa Clara students in the early 20th century didn’t have a lot of free time to wander campus. They were in class from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a half-hour break after breakfast and an hour for lunch.

The curriculum that early 20th century Santa Clara students experienced was thus a hybrid: It was partly classical, partly American, partly theoretical, and partly practical. It took in elements from all the cross currents that were sweeping across the American and Catholic educational scene. And many of those who went through it remembered it as a curriculum that prepared them well for a variety of enterprises. Fernsworth, for instance, covered the Spanish Civil War for the London Times. He recalled, “I felt some satisfaction on being told at London’s Printing House Square, ‘You don’t write American English·we could not tell from your writing that you were an American.’ I felt that Fr. Deeney’s [his Santa Clara English teacher] influence had something to do with that.”

For anyone who has graduated from Santa Clara in the past 30 years, one of the most striking things about the early 20th century course of studies is the relative lack of religion courses in it. Formal theology courses occupied only one hour a week, and this situation continued through the first half of the 20th century. The distinguishing feature of the curriculum was philosophy, not theology.

This was partly due to the fact that, for centuries in the Catholic tradition, formal theology was very much a clerical enterprise. It was taught in seminaries and in an abstract fashion quite removed from the vicissitudes of the life of the laity. The educated Catholic layperson was not expected to be a theologian. In the United States, participation in the devotional practices that defined the culture of popular Catholicism and adherence to the moral norms laid down by the Church were much more important than dogmatic subtleties. At colleges like Santa Clara, campus life itself·closed, organized around attendance at various religious events in the Mission chapel, and supervised by religious personnel·was the major agent in Catholic spiritual formation. Students were quite aware of this dynamic. For instance, during the intense liturgical season of Advent in 1917, student Armand White wrote home, “We have been having a great deal of religion lately. Schwartz says he is getting as pious as hell!”

This situation still existed at Santa Clara in 1953. By then the University had evolved into three undergraduate units: arts and sciences, business, and engineering. Students could major in at least eight subjects in arts and sciences, seven in business, and three in engineering. The University required two years of Latin for the bachelor of arts degree. This meant that most students, even in arts and sciences, opted for the bachelor of science degree, which traditionalists had tried to bury permanently 60 years earlier.


Getting philosophical

But whatever his major or degree, each student had to take a significant number of philosophy courses. The philosophy requirements had increased since 1903. This was due in part to the popularity of scholastic philosophy in Catholic circles, and also among segments of the broader American public, in the era between the two world wars. Thomists like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson became popular even in secular venues, and Catholic colleges such as Santa Clara took the occasion to beef up their offerings in this seemingly burgeoning field.

All arts and sciences and business majors had to take the equivalent of a minor in philosophy (including 12 upper division units). Engineering students had to take a total of 12 lower and upper division units in their junior and senior years. The courses were generally sequenced. Freshmen took Logic; sophomores, Metaphysics I and Philosophy of Man; juniors Theory of Knowledge and Metaphysics II; and seniors, Basic Ethics and Social Ethics. Santa Clara’s most eminent philosopher, Austin Fagothey, S.J., declared accurately, “Philosophy [is] the pivot point on which the whole curriculum of a Jesuit university turns.”

Academic theology courses continued to exist, but they were not extensive. Catholic students generally took a single 1-unit course each semester. Non-Catholic students were exempted from this requirement. As was the case in 1903, campus life was the major agent in Catholic spiritual formation of students. A contemporary campus photo, for instance, pictured the student body, under a banner of the Virgin Mary, processing through the Mission Gardens behind cassocked figures bearing candles and crosses. Such devotional activities continued to be a significant expression of Santa Clara’s Jesuit and Catholic identity.

Few suspected it at the time, but this era was already drawing to a close. The popularity of scholasticism was waning, even among Catholics, in the 1950s. Critics complained that it neglected subjectivity, evolution, and historical development, and was thus increasingly irrelevant to post-World War II American life. Only a few graduate programs in the country trained such philosophers, and they were generally not the leading departments of the land. At the same time, the increasingly affluent, professional, and suburbanizing Catholic population was demanding greater academic excellence of its colleges and universities. That entailed hiring faculty from better graduate programs. The result of these trends was the almost overnight collapse of philosophy as the integrating discipline in a Santa Clara education.

As late as 1966, most students were required to take five philosophy courses. Three years later, in 1969, only three philosophy courses were required, as well as three theology courses for Catholic students. And two years after that, the only University requirement was three “religious studies” courses, for the first time required of all students, Catholic or not.

Changing times

A few Catholic universities had attempted to adopt a “great books” approach as the integrating factor in their curricula, but Santa Clara did not follow that trend. During most of the 1970s, curricular requirements were set at the college and school level, with the three religious studies courses as the only University-wide requirement. Finally, the opening of campus life, which began with the influx of veterans after World War II, accelerated in the 1960s. In short order, campus extracurricular life lost the spiritual formation role it had exercised so powerfully for so long.

In 1978, a relatively new president, William Rewak, S.J., gave a brand new academic vice-president, Paul Locatelli, S.J., his first task: to create a new Santa Clara Core Curriculum. A number of other colleges and universities, whose own curricula had collapsed during the 1960s and 1970s for reasons both similar to and dissimilar from Santa Clara’s, were engaged in like enterprises. Santa Clara thus participated in a national trend. Locatelli convened a faculty/student committee that worked for more than a year. The committee identified seven areas in which Santa Clara students ought to take classes and demonstrate competency: composition and literature, Western culture, second language, social science, mathematics and natural science, ethics, and religious studies.

This curricular approach, which was broadly similar to that being adopted by many other Catholic and secular universities, was a frank admission that, in the fragmented intellectual and social universes of the late 20th century, no single discipline was able, by itself, to structure a university’s entire academic life and express its identity. Integration and distinctiveness would henceforth come, not from the overarching sway of one field like philosophy, but from a unique mix of subject matters and approaches that the curriculum would embody. Ten years later, another faculty committee, headed by Political Science Professor Eric Hanson, retained this basic approach and added requirements in non-Western culture and technology. This is the curriculum under which SCU students are studying in 2003.

History is not a predictive art. However, we can say with reasonable confidence that the larger patterns that have shaped Santa Clara’s curricular developments will continue to exercise their sway. Our new curriculum is already becoming a tradition, and there’s no doubt it will be modified by unforeseen forces of innovation in the years and decades to come.

SCU History Professor Robert Senkewicz is chair of the University Core Curriculum Committee. He has co-edited Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535-1846, (2001), The History of Alta California: A Memoir of Mexican California (1996), and authored Vigilantes in Gold Rush San Francisco (1985).

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