New Mackauer Professor Argues for the Core’s Global Direction

Kelly said that given new emphasis on non-Western intellectuals, core course material must be reevaluated.

By Caroline Kubzansky, Managing Editor ('20-'21)

John Kelly, a professor of anthropology and the chair of the Core sequence Self, Culture, and Society, is the first professor to occupy the newly established Christian W. Mackauer Professorship. The Mackauer Professorship specifically seeks to support the Core curriculum and is the result of a $3.5 million donation from the Redbud Foundation’s Glenn Swogger Jr. 

Kelly spoke to The Maroon about the professorship, which he sees as a way of furthering the reach of the Core particularly in the social sciences and as a resource for updating it for the 21st century.  

Kelly used Self as an example of the challenges facing professors who determine the structure of the Core. Given the falling idea of Anglocentrism and new emphasis on non-Western intellectuals, he said, course material needs to be reevaluated.  

“We inherit a course that hasn’t had a major reconsideration of its curriculum for more than 20 years, because it’s been in…a powerful form for a long time,” Kelly said. “But that means there are no 21st century readings, or few…. It’s time for all of our systems of knowledge to be self-consciously global.”  

In order to train Chicago students as not only American but also global citizens, Kelly stressed that the seminar format—a cohort of 19 students taught by a highly knowledgeable, carefully-trained professor—is absolutely essential. This, he said, is the best path to push students toward an understanding of unfamiliar subjects, particularly those that intimidate them. 

“We have to think about…what constitutes social science for that whole globe, and…not just getting a student ready to study German history,” Kelly said. “Could you articulate Adam Smith with Islamic theory? Absolutely. But how do we begin that conversation, especially if someone feels at war with Islam? If we’re in a lecture hall, you can just tune out. We’re going to be able to have a much more complicated encounter in this teaching format.”  

Kelly emphasized just how expensive running and improving the Core is and noted that running such a program on tuition money alone would be nearly impossible for a private university.  

“Why would someone give such a large gift to the school? Because they want a Core curriculum in the 21st century,” Kelly said. “It’s an excruciatingly expensive business, running a university of this kind. We insist that your education is better if you have an I-Thou relationship with a small number of students and a faculty member.” 

The Mackauer Professorship will sustain what Kelly believes is the pedagogically soundest college curriculum in the country and allow the Core to move forward into the 21st century to deal with more current issues.  

“[It’s like] okay, don’t mess it up. Don’t let it slip with time and ignore the Anthropocene global warming, third-wave feminism on a global basis, and the question of how you have critical race studies in an introduction to social sciences course,” Kelly said.  

While donations clearly help this cause, Kelly insisted that the effort would continue no matter what and that this deep commitment to the Core is what makes donors decide to support it, giving professors the resources to better carry out this commitment. 

“We’re not doing it for the gifts. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. And I think the donors see that too,” Kelly said.