Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.12B, 100-104
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
University CurriculumRecent Philosophical Reflections
and Practical Implementations
Juha Himanka
Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
Received October 29th, 2013; revised November 29th, 2013; accepted December 6th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Juha Himanka. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attri-
bution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copyrights ©
2013 are reserved for SCIRP and the owner of the intellectual property Juha Himanka. All Copyright © 2013 are
guarded by law and by SCIRP as a guardian.
Philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre have recently made a discussion on the univer-
sity curriculum. MacIntyre formulated the problem in the following way: “a surprising number of the
major disorders of the latter part of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century
have been brought about by some of the most distinguished graduates of some of the most distinguished
universities in the world”. The problem is that these universities give inadequate general education. The
situation even seems to be getting worse as Nussbaum is concerned about the direction that curriculum
design has recently taken in some parts of the world. In this article, however, I will cite a few examples of
university curriculum design that give some promising solutions to the problems posed by philosophers.
Especially the new Common Core Curriculum of the University of Hong Kong offers possibilities that
might lead the way to a new and more responsible manner of designing a university curriculum.
Keywords: University; Curriculum; Education; Globalization
Two eminent philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha
Nussbaum, have recently published essays in which they ex-
press their concern over university education (MacIntyre, 2009;
Nussbaum, 2010). Both philosophers are scholars of antiquity,
and the roots of their views are to be found in the ideas of edu-
cation already presented by Plato and Aristotle. I will visit these
age-old views on higher education, but my main aim is to look
into some fresh attempts at building a responsible and up-to-
date university curriculum. I will finish by focusing on how the
ancient ideas on education in their new formulations go to-
gether with new versions of university curricula.
Alasdair Macintyre
Alasdair MacIntyre held the John Henry Newman Lecture in
Blackfriars, Cambridge, on June 9, 2009. The lecture was enti-
tled “The Very Idea of a University: Aristotle, Newman and
Us” and it was published in British Journal of Education Stud-
ies in the same year. MacIntyre argues in his paper against the
more and more popular points of view that regard the discus-
sion on the idea of university as an outdated topic. Proponents
of these types of analyses think that the field of higher educa-
tion is so diverse nowadays that no general doctrine of univer-
sities is any longer possible. MacIntyre disagrees and states that
the views presented by John Henry Newman in his The Idea of
University (1852,1858) are still relevant and worth careful con-
sideration. According to MacIntyre’s view, if we cease to ask
what the idea of university means, we will also have stopped
asking what an educated mind is.
MacIntyre’s philosophical background is Aristotelian and it
is therefore no wonder that he quoted the following famous
passage from the above-mentioned book by Newman:
“While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being
Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyse the thoughts,
feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the
meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In
many subject-matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aris-
totle; and we are his disciples whether we will or no though we
may not know it.” (Newman, 1907, 1852, 1858/73: pp. 109-110;
cf. MacIntyre, 2009)
Does this mean that MacIntyre thinks that we in the 21st cen-
tury are still Aristotelians in relation to the university, but are
simply not aware of it?
During the formatting years of the universities in the Middle
Ages, the works of Aristotle were the main syllabus in teaching.
The reading list for the licentia docendi of a magister artium in
1255 at the University of Paris, for example, included 25 books
of which 19 were from the Aristotelian corpus (Pedersen, 1997:
pp. 278-279). Furthermore, we can find some signs of Aristote-
lian thought in our teaching arrangements even today. Aristotle,
for example, thought that although sight is our most appreciated
sense, we actually learn better by hearing. For centuries pro-
fessors taught by reading books out loud while students listened.
This was called lecturing, and we can still sometimes see that
this background influences our lectures even today. MacIntyre
is, however, not trying to return to the roots of traditional ways
of teaching here. Instead, he seems to think that there is another
aspect of the Aristotelian doctrine of learning that is still up to
According to MacIntyre, an educated mind should know
what he or she is doing. Although MacIntyre does not point this
out, the view is to be found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. In the
first section of the first book of Metaphysics, Aristotle consid-
ers what it means to know better (mallon eidenai). It is custo m-
ary to find four criteria for knowing better in the text (Heideg-
ger, 2005, §10b): 1) knowing the reasons or causes; 2) knowing
does not aim at immediate utility; 3) knowing goes beyond
common perception and 4) the one who knows something is
also able to teach it. With the hint given by MacIntyre we can,
however, also point out a fifth criterion.
Right after Aristotle has mentioned the possibility of know-
ing better, he presents the difference between artisans and mas-
ter craftsmen. Here the master craftsmen know better:
“We consider that the master craftsmen in every profession
are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the arti-
sans, because they know the reasons of the things which are
done; but we think that the artisans, like certain inanimate ob-
jects, do things, but without knowing what they are doing.
(9801a-b, my italics)
A sloppy reader might only see here the aspects of connect-
ing knowing better with knowing reasons, but actually the pas-
sage also connects knowing better with knowing what one is
doing. What does it mean, then, to know what one is doing?
It is actually not that easy to know what we are doing in a
given social setting. MacIntyre gives an example of how one
might answer the question, “What are you doing?”: “Solving an
equation; predicting next week’s stock prices; pleasing my
employer; working late in the office; absenting myself from
dinner with my family; alienating my oldest child” (p. 359). In
any given situation the answer to the question, “What are you
doing?” is more complicated than one might at first think. One
must be educated even to understand the scope of the question,
and to answer the question requires quite an extensive educa-
MacIntyre presents his critique against our present university
curriculum. He points out that some important questions go
unasked in the contemporary curriculum, such as the question
of human beings and their self-reflection in general (cf. 355).
The critique then proceeds onto a more concrete level. MacIn-
tyre asserts that “a surprising number of the major disorders of
the latter part of the twentieth century and the first decade of
the twenty-first century have been brought about by some of the
most distinguished graduates of some of the most distinguished
universities in the world.” This is the result of “an inadequate
general education … that has made it possible for those gradu-
ates to act decisively and deliberately without knowing what
they are doing.” (p. 361). MacIntyre gives three examples of
such disasters: the Vietnam War, the policies of the United
States towards Iran and the present world economic crisis.
As a forerunner of the last-mentioned disaster MacIntyre
points out the case of Long-Term Capital Investment. The col-
lapse of this hedge fund in 1997 was so massive that for a short
time it threatened the entire financial system (p. 361). The ex-
ecutives of the fund knew what they were doing as far as
mathematics and economic theory were concerned. As the col-
lapse demonstrated, what they did not in fact know was what
they were doing in the actual world with people, because they
lacked “historical knowledge of two kinds of contingency:
knowledge in depth of the histories of risk-taking firms and of
the vicissitudes encountered in those histories and knowledge
of the politics of the different cultures within which markets
operate” (p. 361).
To sum up, MacIntyre thinks we should still ask what an
educated mind is. His proposal for an answer is: an educated
mind knows what she or he is doing. In addition, in a democ-
ratic society there is one particularly important act, voting,
during which we should know what we are doing. It follows
that we should be able to recognize the people who know what
they are doing.
Martha Nussbaum
Another modern Aristotelian philosopher, Martha Nussbaum,
has also dealt with these questions in her book Not for Profit:
Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). According to
Nussbaum we should still teach in the Socratic manner and
stimulate students to think and argue for themselves. Nussbaum
also stresses that our problems today are global in their scope. It
follows that we should develop strategies to make students
global citizens.
In comparison with MacIntyre, Nussbaum is more in debt to
Plato than to Aristotle. She writes “the dialogues of Plato are
second to none for their capacity to inspire searching, active
thinking, with the life and example of Socrates up front to in-
spire” (p. 55). As an example Nussbaum points out the famous
section where Socrates teaches the slave boy to double the area
of a square in Plato’s dialogue Meno. Socrates there asks doz-
ens of questions and draws figures on the sand until the boy
realizes the answer himself. The point is that the boy has to
figure out the answer himself without Socrates telling it to him.
As the student was only a slave and did better than many lead-
ing figures of Athens in discussion with Socrates, this also
demonstrates how Socratic critical inquiry is utterly non-au-
thoritarian: “the status of the speaker does not count, only the
nature of the argument” (pp. 50-51).
This Platonic or Socratic point of view that the student him-
self or herself should be an agent in learning holds a strong
position in Western views on education. The proponents of this
view include, for example, René Descartes, François de Féne-
lon, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Schelling, Wilhelm von
Humboldt, Victor Cousin and J. V. Snellman (Himanka, 2012).
Nussbaum, however, points out that a similar Socratic view on
education can be found even outside Europe from very early on
When the student is not understood as a passive listener but
as an active self in teaching, the student will gradually learn
what it means to be a responsible subject in society. He or she
will develop a capacity to empathy, understand others as sub-
jects and learn to understand what kind of responsibilities we
have in different groups and societies. In this way the student
will learn how to be a citizen in a democratic society and a
citizen of the world.
Nussbaum has her own opinion on how this kind of educa-
tion should be arranged at the university level. She argues
strongly for the liberal arts model of curriculum that is used in
many major universities in the United States. Although the
model has turned out to be very successful, it is no longer seen
as an example to be followed. It is this development that wor-
ries Nussbaum.
To sum up: According to Nussbaum, the university curricu-
lum should still include sections that follow the liberal arts
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model and give all students a wide cultural education. The So-
cratic model where the student is an active participant and
where the argumentation rules over the authority of the speaker
is the best way to educate people in democratic societies.
There are, however, counter examples to the development
described by Nussbaum. The University of Winchester (UK),
for example, has started a programme called Modern Liberal
Arts. The starting point there is that the important questions we
humans need to ask cannot be contained within a single aca-
demic discipline. I visited the programme a few years ago and
was impressed how the students were really able to handle the
big questions from the perspective of their own situations. In
order for this to happen, students, however, need good supervi-
sion, and that presupposes capable professors. Perhaps we
could find other examples of encouraging trends within higher
education? Let us therefore take a look at what else is happen-
ing in university curriculum design. I will take two examples,
Stanford and Hong Kong.
Stanford University
In the late 1980’s, there was a big debate over the university
curriculum in Stanford University. During the first few months
of 1988, the University, then in the midst of its centennial cele-
bration, found itself constantly in the national news. The debate
dealt with the question whether or not to retain a list of fifteen
mandatory works in the first-year course of Western culture.
The problem was that these courses said nothing or very little
about the non-European cultures. On one side of the debate,
Stanford Black Student Union called the course “racist” and on
the other side, a local newspaper reported the Senate’s aban-
donment of the list with the headline “Stanford Puts an End to
Western Civilization.” I will not focus on the debate here, but
will instead turn to a recent report by Study of Undergraduate
Education at Stanford (SUES) (Lindenberger, 1990).
The SUES report tells us that “the curricular wars” of the
1980s had their impact. Now the goals of education are not
defined by their content. Instead, the aims of education are
described as capacities that students will have when they
graduate. How does the report itself, then, describe the aims of
Stanford education?
The part of the report that deals with the aims of Stanford
education starts by pointing out that “Stanford grounding grant
states the university’s ‘object’ succinctly: ‘to qualify its stu-
dents for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.’” Here
we are immediately in conflict with the philosophical views
presented above. In what follows, however, the report turns to a
direction that is much more in agreement with the philosophers.
The report sets three major aims for Stanford education. The
first one stresses that the graduates should be able to communi-
cate effectively. At the end of the section, the report affirms that
the aim is not only a student’s personal success: “In a world ri fe
with misunderstanding and riven by all manner of political and
sectarian dispute, nothing is more important to responsible citi-
zenship than the capacity to communicate” (p. 12).
The second aim of Stanford education consists of the capaci-
ties students should acquire during their years at Stanford. The
list includes critical thinking, aesthetic and interpretative judg-
ment, formal and quantitative reasoning skills and an ability to
think historically. The list does not include the social skills
which Nussbaum valued so highly. However, I will discuss
these in conjunction with the third aim of Stanford education.
Before moving on to the third aim, the report points out that
the students having acquired the above-mentioned skills are
well on their way to personal success. The report is not content
with this, however: “Yet if the history of the modern world
teaches us anything, it is that knowledgeable and skillful people
are capable of doing great harm as well as great good.” (p. 12)
This we saw with MacIntyre’s examples such as the Vietnam
War. Does the report, then, follow the lines set by philosophers
with its third aim?
The third aim is the most important one from our perspective.
The report states:
“If our graduates are to assume the responsibilities of local,
national, and global citizenship, they need not only deep
knowledge and well-honed skills but also a wider set of char-
acteristics and competencies: a sense of personal and social
responsibility; ethical and moral reasoning skills; an apprecia-
tion of cultural difference, as well as of human communality;
the ability to work collaboratively in diverse teams; tolerance,
generosity, and a broad capacity to empathy.” (p. 12)
The third aim underlines responsibility, empathy and com-
munality and is thus well in line with the aims set by our phi-
The University of Hong Kong
My second example of a university curriculum is the new
Common Core Curriculum of the University of Hong Kong.
The university had prepared this four-year undergraduate cur-
riculum for five years before it was launched in full in 2012.
The curriculum is called common because it deals with matters
which are common to all human societies and are issues of
fundamental importance to all humankind. It is called core
because after taking these courses students will hold the core
values of a democratic society. The curriculum is designed to
provide a fundamental common learning experience for all
University of Hong Kong undergraduate students. It seems that
MacIntyre’s questions on human beings and their self reflection
are presented in a contemporary c urr ic ulum after all .
What will the student study within the Common Core Cur-
riculum? The introduction in the Students Handbook informs
us that the curriculum is “designed to help students see the
interconnectedness and interdependent nature of human exis-
tence through exploring common human experiences”. The
curriculum does not only change the emphasis from content to
capacities but goes on to focus on experiences common to all
human beings. The curriculum is highly ambitious as it aims to
explore fundamental human experiences instead of just in-
creasing the student’s knowledge of these things. How is this to
be done? Let us take a glance at the goals.
The Common Core Curriculum sets four goals. The fourth on
the list comes close to the second aim of Stanford education
and deals with the intellectual skills that will be further en-
hanced in disciplinary studies. We are here mainly interested in
the first three goals.
The first goal aims to enable students to develop a broader
perspective and critical understanding of the complexities they
confront in their everyday lives. The second aims to cultivate
students to appreciate their own and other cultures. The third
aims to enable students to see themselves as citizens and re-
sponsible individuals of global and local communities. All
these certainly point to the same direction as the curricula out-
lined by Nussbaum and MacIntyre.
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The Handbook sets further goals in each discipline. Within
the humanities, for example, the first objective is to enable
students “to gain an understanding of the distinctive qualities
and experiences of being human” (p. 13). The Handbook then
gives seven other objectives and turns to key themes. The sec-
tion of key themes first lists traditional fields of study in the
humanities: language, history, literature, visual and performing
arts, and philosophy. The curriculum however sets up a differ-
ent, interdisciplinary list of key themes: The Creative Arts;
Historical Awareness: Past and Present; Language, Communi-
cation and Society; Mind-Body-Spirit and Ethics and Society.
Students who have reached these goals will have a better
understanding of what they are doing and will be more respon-
sible global citizens. How are the students, then, to reach these
We cannot go into details of the 180 pages long Common
Core Curriculum Student Handbook 2013-2014 here, but we
can take a quick look at what kind of programmes and courses
the curriculum offers. There are 157 courses to choose from. I
will pick up a few examples. The courses are divided into four
areas of inquiry: 1) Science and Technological Literacy, 2)
Humanities, 3) Global Issues and 4) China: Culture, State and
Society. Let us select one course of each of these areas: Our
Place in the Universe (Science), The Last Dance: Understand-
ing Death and Dying (Humanities); Understanding Financial
Crisis and The Political Economy of Growth and Poverty in the
World (Global Issues) and People, Propaganda and Profit: Un-
derstanding Media in China (China).
At first glance, the programme and goals of the Common
Core Curriculum seem very ambitious, almost too ambitious to
be achieved. However, when one studies the details and sees
how carefully the whole curriculum is planned, its goals appear
more and more realistic.
I started with a concerned philosophical comment on setting
aims in higher education. MacIntyre’s example of Long-Term
Capital Management is a good illustration of the problem. The
main idea of this hedge fund was to use the latest scientific
model and hire highly educated academic staff. They even had
two Nobel prize winners in their team. The fund failed misera-
bly, and analyses afterwards had shown quite convincingly that
the main problem was the too narrow education of those who
were in charge (Kolman, 1999; Lewis, 1999; Lowenstein,
2000). If the executives of the fund had graduated from the
Common Core Curriculum, the catastrophe would probably
never have happened. They would have taken the course on
Understanding Financial Crises and seen beforehand what
might happen.
Philosophers suggest that we should take care of a wide
enough curriculum at the university level. Our graduates should
have enough wisdom to know what they are doing and the kind
of education in which they understand themselves as responsi-
ble citizens. The aims of Stanford Education take us a long way
in that direction, but if the Common Core Curriculum really
works in practice, it could take us all the way. That remains to
be seen.
According to the old Platonic educational ideal, we should
align our education with the ideal society. It follows that if we
want our society to be a well functioning democracy, we should
educate our students to be good and responsible citizens in that
type of society. And if we want to have a well functioning soci-
ety that covers the whole humanity on Earth, we should teach
our students to be global citizens. But what are we to teach to
our students in order to reach these goals? How are we to
evaluate whether students have developed “a sense of personal
and social responsibility” and indeed have a “broad capacity to
empathy” as the Aims of Stanford Education states?
The Common Core Curriculum gives some answers to these
extremely difficult questions. The course titled The Last Dance:
Understanding Death and Dying, for example, states that on
completing the course a student will be able to “appraise the
impact of death and loss in societal level” (p. 86). It would be a
good thing to be able to do this if one is responsible for deci-
sions that might cause deaths. And perhaps those who are re-
sponsible for current economic crises would have made differ-
ent decisions if they had taken a course on Economic Global-
ization. In other words, if they had known what they were do-
ing, they would have realized that their actions could cause 50
million people to lose their jobs world-wide (ILO, 2010). In
addition, they should have been responsible enough to see that
these risks would count more than their own personal success.
Furthermore, the organization that chooses the executives
should value people who know what they are doing. In the pre-
sent situation that seems to be a utopian scenario (cf. Lewis,
1989). But within democratic control in a society where citizens
can tell the difference between those who know what they are
doing and those who do not, we would enjoy the benefits of
good education. The Common Core Curriculum does offer
some elements that seem to point to that direction, where the
results of good education are not only successful graduates, but
also a better society or even a better world.
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