UD’s little known facts: the history of the Core

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Donald and Louise Cowan are credited with conceiving of and establishing the Core curriculum. Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas Archives.

The development of the Core curriculum at the University of Dallas is the foundation for its identity as a liberal arts institution. However, the Core did not descend from heaven at the opening of the doors of Carpenter in 1956. It has changed greatly over time.

Many students correctly believe that the arrival of Donald and Louise Cowan in 1959 played an intrinsic role in establishing the identity of UD and the required curriculum for graduation. Dr. Louise Cowan, along with many other early faculty members, made the courageous choice to read the “great books” in required classes for a major.  At that time, classicists at universities owned the sole right to read books like “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey,” as they were believed to be the only ones able to ascertain their meaning through linguistic analysis.

UD students would still be reading dry textbooks about English composition had it not been for Louise Cowan’s intuition and her desire to read and teach the great works of Western literature. UD’s faculty had already ordered the run of the mill textbooks, but Louise Cowan told the bookstore to simply ship them all back. Some faculty even went to local bookstores to buy paperback copies of the classics we still read in Lit Trad I and Lit Trad II.  

However, at the time this was not the “Core.” The term “Core” did not even exist until 1985. Before the “Core” became a nebulous term, it merely reflected the requirements for graduation. The “great books” curriculum of UD was caused more by spur of the moment yearning  than a strategic plan. Regardless, this consequential decision helped develop the identity of UD, but it did not solidify it.

Often the lesser-discussed Dr. Cowan is the physics professor turned president, Donald Cowan. Much like his wife, Donald Cowan was a visionary for UD during his tenure as president from 1962 to 1977. In all likelihood, he was of more consequence to the development of UD’s identity than Louise Cowan. As a skilled writer and rhetorician, he delivered hundreds of addresses, and many of them concern the very issue of the character of the UD education. Realistically speaking, Donald Cowan was the closest person to a philosopher king UD has ever seen.

In his address “The Idea of a Curriculum: Some Thought on its Future,” Cowan makes the claim that curriculum must evolve:

“Curriculum is far from perfect and every year presents new demands and new possibilities for improving the program.”

The “Core,” as it was called after 1985, required a refinement process. In terms of UD’s Catholic identity, all students were not required to take theology classes until 1977, seemingly contrary to what many claim to be an intrinsically Catholic nature of the requirements for a degree.

The tradition of the high Catholic population at UD is also a recent development, because as one of the high points of Cowan’s presidency in 1973, UD’s population was only about 50% Catholic, according to then-president of the board of trustees, Patrick Haggerty. Ironically, the only current Core class that was also required in 1956 is Principles of Economics. Core curriculum revision committees met almost yearly to determine if the curriculum met the needs of students.

In terms of identity, the process of improvement became an important element of Donald Cowan’s presidency. Whether it was integrating electronics into the classroom or having an openness to improving the curriculum, Donald Cowan sought to be on the cutting edge. He sought to tailor UD’s education to the needs of society. When there was a need for business education, he facilitated the development of an M.B.A. program. When there was a need for more graduate schools, he fought to establish a graduate school, which was opened remarkably only about ten years after the university opened, incredibly rare for a university of UD’s size.

While the Core encourages students to look to the past, preparation for the future is as intrinsic to the identity of UD and the Core curriculum.

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