The Colgate Scene
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Tools for life
The liberal arts core as a frame of reference
|by James Leach|
Art historian Mary Ann Calo is the University Professor who coordinates Core 152: The Challenge of Modernity, which explores the emergence of the modern Western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
On this point the University Professors who keep watch on the college's liberal
arts core agree: the core's real purpose is to equip students to think through
the issues that will confront them for the rest of their lives.|
"Teaching students to think," members of the college's faculty wrote more than 160 years ago, is "the main purpose of education." That theme has been thought and rethought by the faculty ever since, leading to survey courses in the 1920s, The Colgate Plan in 1928, the Core Curriculum of the 1940s, and countless revisions of the liberal arts core through the latest in 1995.
A faculty document describing the current core curriculum notes in the same paragraph that the college "has one of the longest and most vigorous traditions of general education," and that "the core must be responsive" to evolving trends in teaching and scholarship as well as to the interests and needs of students.
The history of general education at Colgate "is one of continuity and change," said Ellen Kraly, a professor of geography who, as current director of the Division of University Studies, coordinates the ongoing conversation from which the core continuously evolves. "It is a very dynamic process," she said.
"In this most recent revision of the core we realized that we had to make the core more directly related to the lives of our students," said Kraly. "Through response texts and discussions we illustrate that themes and issues that confronted people in antiquity are related to issues that confront us in our daily lives and in our global lives today."
The title "University Professor" is reserved for faculty members who chair programs in the core curriculum. Kraly calls them "UPs."
John Naughton teaches Romance languages and literatures and is the University Professor for Core 151: Western Traditions. At a luncheon discussion with other UPs he said: "Core courses aren't the domain of any specific field or discipline. Ideally the core creates community and conversation across the disciplines. Core courses raise questions that can be approached in any number of ways. Faculty members in the core are talking with each other from the perspectives of their disciplines, and students join in these conversations."
In choosing installations for the Longyear Museum of Anthropology, curator Carol Ann Lorenz selects work that cuts across programs, interests and classes, including the core."The Border" by Mohawk artist Shelley Niro speaks to the Canadian/US border that bisects the Iroquois nation.
Mary Ann Calo, an art historian and University Professor of Core 152: The
Challenge of Modernity, talked at the luncheon about the influence of the
core in terms of "its extension beyond Colgate." For all the cultural
significance of the subjects explored in core courses, the classes "are also
paradigms, examples that get students to recognize that they need to think
critically about everything, that they shouldn't be easily persuaded to believe
something that isn't true. These classes are places where students develop a
frame of reference for talking about things forever."|
Students choose from among two dozen core courses offered under the title Cultures of Africa, Asia and the Americas, each designed as an introduction to cultures that did not grow out of the traditions of Western Europe. The comparisons and contrasts are meant to give students not only an understanding of another culture, but an appreciation for cultural differences around the world, and a different perspective on Western culture. "In an interconnected world, an interglobal society, this course equips students to live in a society where their values may be constantly challenged," said University Professor and anthropologist Mary Moran. "They may come to see that their values have a history, a placement in time and space, rather than being universal and self-evident."
In the core component called Scientific Perspectives, students may choose from a growing list of courses that now includes nearly 30 titles, all designed to explore, in Catalogue language, "what it means to be a person living in a world that has been significantly shaped by science and technology." Joseph Amato, a physicist and the University Professor for Scientific Perspectives, said: "This society has been changed radically by science. Students should have some appreciation of the technique and viewpoint of science." The course is required both of students who will major in sciences and those who will major in other fields. "What we are after in all the core courses," Amato said, "is to have students question their values, question all the assumptions they have been living under for 18 years."
Political scientist Timothy Byrnes and Peter Balakian of the English department are University Professors for an optional Core Distinctions course that enables students who have excelled in the four required core courses to distinguish themselves through further study. "One of the goals of the core curriculum is to equip students for living and for facing the complicated cultural challenges of a new century," Balakian said.
Naughton agreed. "To some degree," he said, "we are working on a kind of transformation in students that will change them from passive receivers of tradition and ideas to active participants: makers and doers." In the process of developing and refining those course offerings, many faculty agree that they themselves are transformed.
"It definitely stimulates the intellectual atmosphere for the faculty," said Moran. "The best conversations I've had have been in core." While the structure of core classes allows individual faculty members to bring their own perspectives to the teaching, the common purpose of the courses (and, in the case of 151 and 152, common texts) creates a shared experience that can foster student discussions of core issues outside the classroom.
"The core program helps students make connections between courses, enabling them to have a deeper and fuller understanding of given events," said Eric Lewin '99. The connections extend beyond the core. Calo tells students that the best preparation for her class in early European modernism is not necessarily an art history class, but Core 152. "That is where they find out about the world these artists were living in."
Prior to his graduation in 1998, Seth Schaeffer said that through his courses, including general education, he had "come to know myself and I've come to know what I believe. I've come to know how I come to know things. That process is just as important as what I know."
"The core," said Balakian, "provides a foundation for learning."
Glenn H. Ivers `73 was on campus in September to introduce Ugandan singer/songwriter Samite, whose performance related to the core cultures courses. Ivers' film Song of the Refugee documents the efforts of refugees in three African countries to rebuild their lives.
Continuity and Change in the West: Core 151 & 152|
Two of the four required courses in the core curriculum help students develop an understanding of the traditions and institutions that influence life in western Europe and America. "Both courses raise the question of what it means to be a person living in the West today," says the course description, "the first by examining the complex origins of Western identities, the second by questioning what it means to be a modern Western individual. These courses challenge students to find their own place in a tradition that they will sustain and redefine as they live their lives."
Additionally, individual instructors select "response texts" that challenge or complement the common texts. "Through the juxtaposition of the response texts," the faculty designers wrote, "students gain an enhanced appreciation of the common texts as well as a sense of both the continuity and diversity of Western traditions. They engage two questions that are central to understanding the past: `Does the past speak to us today?' and `To what extent are the ideas and values of the past significantly different from our own?'"
Naughton cited an example of how he uses the Bible to encourage students to question. "There is a scene in Genesis where God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham says to God, `Look, I'm nothing but dust and ashes, I'm nothing and you're God, but I'm telling you, I don't think this is right.' I can use that example and say to students, `It is inscribed in the tradition that you take questions that are really troubling you and you challenge transcendence; you're not afraid of that.'"
The Traditions course, in Naughton's view, establishes some of the sources of Western identity. "If we live in the West, do we not have certain values, a kind of identity, maybe a consciousness, that have been constructed over a long period of time, and that can be questioned?" he asked.
The questioning occurs in Core 152: The Challenge of Modernity, where, as Naughton said, "Gigantic revolutionary figures emerge toward the end of the 19th century -- whether in psychology or physics or economics -- who completely explode traditional ways of looking at the world."
Art historian Padma Kaimal performed classical dance for her India class, a core selection in the Cultures of Africa, Asia and the Americas.
The Challenge of Modernity|
As in Core 151, students in the 152 course, The Challenge of Modernity, read from a selection of works written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the emerging modern era. In texts such as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folks and Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, students examine the social, political and human consequences that accompanied the scientific revolution, industrialization and urbanization at a pivotal period for the modern West.
Response texts for 152 vary among instructors but include such readings as Cornel West's Race Matters, Richard Dawkins' River Out of Eden and Peter Saunders' Capitalism, as well as performances of American jazz and screenings of films such as the Carl Sagan story Contact.
Calo explained that different instructors approach the material from different points of view. Her response texts in teaching Darwin are Huxley's Evolution of Ethics and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, for instance, while colleague Robert McVaugh uses Dawkins' The River Out of Eden and Edward Witherspoon teaches the material with an essay by Peter Winch called "Darwin, Genesis and Contradiction."
"Coming from Darwin we can conclude that nature is not moral, but we expect that people should be," said Calo. "Humans have the ability to resist or deny nature, and with that control comes responsibility. I don't teach what is or is not moral, but rather the tools to enable students to sort that out given the pressures of modern civilization."
As University Professor for the course, Calo organizes discussions where instructors explain their approaches to the course. "One colleague's remarks about teaching Darwin might introduce others to teaching the material another way," she said. "It's one of the wonderful things about teaching this class."
In explaining modernity Calo said, "Gradually in the West, particularly in the 19th century, there emerged a consciousness about the world being different from the past -- we try to understand that in the context of past and future. Modernity is not a clear break with history. But then the contemporary is not a clear break either."
Beyond creating a framework from which students can consider moral decisions and identity, Calo said the course is also a place to teach students to read critically. "Writing is a form of persuasion," she said. "Students should have the ability as well as the desire to read intelligently and to assess the importance of books that will emerge in their own lifetimes."'
Geology professor Paul Pinet's core course in Ecology, Ethics and Wilderness employs a scientific perspective to lead students to an examination of their beliefs.
Cultures of Africa, Asia and the Americas|
In offering students their choice among a range of core courses that examine non-Western cultures, the faculty reaffirmed "its commitment to the idea that a liberal education should include an exploration of a culture that is distinct from and differs in substantial ways from the `Western tradition.'"
Anne Pitcher of the political science department is making use of a new option for extended study in teaching her core course about South Africa. The course itself, Pitcher explained, "explores the legacy of apartheid in time and space, and the compartmentalization and integration of peoples in South Africa. Some of the themes that will be covered will be the early clash of peoples from different cultures, the creation of racist legislation during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the challenges to that legislation from local communities and organized political movements, and the transition to democracy during the 1990s."
Extended study will allow Pitcher and her students to travel to South Africa for 24 days beginning in mid-May, visiting museums and memorials, prisons and townships in Johannesburg and Capetown. "Extended study will give students the opportunity to view the lasting impact of apartheid and witness the efforts to create a culture of liberation in a vibrant democracy," said Pitcher, who has arranged discussions on race, gender, democracy and civil rights with parliamentary representatives, former political prisoners, local residents and academics. There will also be opportunities to experience South African culture through music, plays, travel and recreation.
Twenty students, mostly sophomores including some native Zambians and Nigerians, were chosen from among more than 40 applicants to the course. "By reaching out particularly to sophomores, I hope to contribute to building a group of students at Colgate who are broadly interested in social movements, transitions to democracy, and the politics of race, class and gender," said Pitcher, who has visited South Africa often during her study of nearby Mozambique. "For myself, this is one of the most exciting things I have done since coming to Colgate in 1990," she said.
Performances such as this by the Manhattan String Quartet (listed in some syllabi as "required reading") broaden the literature of Core 152.
Scientific Perspectives on the World
The titles of courses from which students may choose to meet the requirement for the core in Scientific Perspectives show how that opportunity has caught the faculty imagination. In courses such as Why Things Happen, Music Perception and Cognition, Critical Analysis of Health Issues and The Sixth Extinction, students engage basic questions that are meant to help them develop a critical understanding of science and its role.
"What is the nature of science?" "What are the strengths, and also the limitations, of the perspective which science brings to the social, biological and physical worlds?" "How does scientific knowledge evolve?" By addressing these questions, and others like them, students develop a greater capacity to integrate scientific perspectives into a comprehensive understanding of the world.
Geologist Paul Pinet says he talks "with passion, conviction and rationality" about his own "radical sense of ethics and deep ecology" in his course on Ecology, Ethics and Wilderness. "I tell students that I don't want them to merely accept what I say. Most won't. They are going to reject it, but by my talking I hope to get them to think more deeply about what they think they believe - so their beliefs become their own because they have been evaluated, not simply accepted."
Pinet's course leads students to distinguish between knowledge and understanding. "This is what makes it a scientific perspectives course," he says. "I claim that a lot of them have knowledge of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, but they don't understand what it means about them as a person, what it means about our species, what it means about our future."
The course begins with an examination of the scientific method -- How do scientists know? What methods do they use to know? -- but he said he sees it "not so much doing science as understanding science and its social implications." His focus is more on having students consider the question, "How ought I to live, given what science has told me about my impact on the world?" A series of short papers lead students through searching, personal examinations of those questions.
Pinet said that teaching the course has "forced me to think deeply about the stuff of science that I knew but tended only to think about in a scientific way, as solving a scientific problem. It is draining," he admits. "I am learning about myself."
Under development now is the syllabus for an invited liberal arts core seminar that will provide 13 students with the opportunity each spring to seek high distinction in the liberal arts.
As Ellen Kraly gathers with her colleagues to think and talk about "what our students should know, and how they should come to know what they know," she says she finds the process "terribly renewing." She thinks about her predecessors on the faculty having similar conversations 50 years ago and more and says, "There is continuity in the Colgate curriculum, but it is incredibly dynamic. It transforms faculty and it transforms students."
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