'Who am I?'


A new general education curriculum is built on this student-centered question.

by James Leach

With the introduction of The Colgate Plan in 1928 the university's faculty established a series of common courses to be taken by all students and created the basis for one of the longest continually running general education programs in the country.

Nearly a century before the unveiling of The Colgate Plan, the faculty of the seminary that was to evolve into Colgate had described the central purpose of its growing curriculum by saying: "Acquiring knowledge ... was secondary to the main purpose of education, [which is] teaching students to think."

This fall the college embarks on the latest revision of a core curriculum that began nearly 70 years ago, with philosophical roots that date to the 1830s. In a modern adaptation of that 160-year-old philosophy, developers say the curriculum is designed to help students answer the question, "Who am I?"

"Students come here to find out who they are," said Jack Dovidio, director of the Division of University Studies. Dovidio and his colleagues spent more than three years scrutinizing the general education program and developing a new curriculum that builds on the strengths of a program that was last modified in the early 1980s. The review was begun under the direction of Robert McVaugh, who preceded Dovidio as director of University Studies.

The new core curriculum embraces many of the elements of its predecessor - it examines the development of Western culture;
it looks in depth at a non-Western culture; it is interdisciplinary; and it is common to all students. Yet its organizers say the new curriculum incorporates important differences: it gives students a personal view of science and technology; it allows faculty more freedom to bring their own interests to bear on the material; it allows students more leeway in scheduling; and it creates opportunities for advanced seminars and to achieve distinction in general education.

The Western Experience

Dovidio shepherded the curriculum through the past year of its development and oversees the effort to put the new courses in place. "The theme was flexibility," he said. "There is more instructor choice throughout the new program.

For example, look at the two core courses that deal with continuity and change in the West. Where every section of those courses used to have the same reading list, now a portion of the reading list will be in common, but the balance will be the instructor's choice. Individual instructors will choose what we call 'response texts' from other time periods."

The plan is designed to emphasize the strength of each instructor's own interest and expertise. George DeBoer, a professor of education who heads the team that is developing the sections of a core course on the modern experience in the West, likes the strategy. "The new program responds to students who were saying that the materials had to be made more relevant or pertinent to their present experience," said DeBoer. "We set out to create a program that students would regard as an important part of their education."

So while the sections of the core course in The Challenge of Modernity taught by DeBoer's group will continue to center on the late 19th century as it is reflected in "lived experience" and in the writing of great thinkers from the time, response texts will provide a contemporary 20th century perspective.

"For example," said DeBoer, "Cornel West's Race Matters - a contemporary work - will be a response text to W.E.B. DuBois' The Soul of Black Folks, one of our most popular 19th century readings. West refers to DuBois in his work, but in reference to the black experience today. It's a perfect response text."

In the same vein, Robert Wright's The Moral Animal is a response text that examines 20th century human behavior, including moral behavior, in the context of 19th century Darwinian evolution. "It all connects to the 'Who am I?' theme," said DeBoer. "We are looking at the Western world in the 19th century as it connects to the world we know today and addressing questions such as 'Why do we behave the way we do?' 'What are the sources of our motivations, practices, customs, social worlds, our self-knowledge?'"

Professor John Naughton coordinates the efforts of faculty developing sections of the Western Traditions course. "There is widespread support for the idea that students who graduate from Colgate should have some exposure to the great seminal works: the Homeric epics, the Hebrew Bible, the Platonic dialogues and the New Testament," Naughton said. "But increasingly it became clear that we needed to give individual instructors a chance to bring to bear on these materials perspectives that they think would be particularly important for students."

He explained that response works need not be limited to the traditional sense of texts. "They could be art works, translations into different media, works by minority or feminist authors,"
he said. "The challenge for us as teachers is to engage students' intellectual curiosity and their moral awareness. Our job as always is to get students to ask important questions. To ask themselves important questions. With this new structure, I think students will find that a lot of genuine sparks will get ignited."

Margaret Maurer teaches Western Traditions and has coordinated the development of earlier courses. Dovidio recruited her to last summer's general education discussions as an "elder," she said. What she likes most about the new approach is "the change in emphasis on how we get to students. How do we teach them? How do we get them to confront this material in intellectually aggressive ways?"

Africa, Asia and the Americas

A second component of the general education core - titled Africa, Asia and the Americas and already known by the shorthand AAA - requires students to choose one course from among a selection of courses that examine non-Western cultures. Each of the courses is taught by an area specialist and focuses on one culture. The courses are designed to expand students' understanding and awareness of the world's cultural diversity. At the same time that the courses teach an appreciation for a particular culture, they are also meant to create a frame of reference "to encourage students to reflect from a different perspective on issues of enduring widespread significance."

Nigel Bolland chairs the "triple-A" component of the new core program, which incorporates many of the features of Tier II of the previous core. "Many of the same people will be teaching courses
that look similar to their Tier II courses," said Bolland. "We will continue to address many of the same topics: the impact of Western culture on indigenous cultures through colonialism; topics of race, ethnicity, nationalism; formation of nation states; connections between expressive aspects of culture such as the arts, music, dance; philosophy and religion. And we'll continue to be rooted in specific cultural areas."

However Bolland anticipates that new teaching strategies will result in students being "more actively involved, not just in discussion but in collaborative research." Also, because students may elect to take the new core courses in any sequence, they will no longer arrive at the AAA classes with the prerequisite background that has most recently been provided to all students by the Western traditions classes. "We will have to be more flexible," said Bolland, "since we will have students approaching the topics from very different angles." He looks forward to the change and anticipates a different level of student enthusiasm for the work, similar to that often seen in first-year seminars.

The greatest challenge for AAA faculty is likely to come in the number of sections that will be required next year. For as the program phases in for the classes of 1999 and 2000, the old Tier II will be phasing out for members of the class of 1998, the largest class in the college's history. "We are committed to completing the transition in one year," said Bolland, who has already begun recruiting faculty to teach additional sections in their areas.

A grounding in science and technology

The third required component of the revised core curriculum is an entirely new selection of courses titled Scientific Perspectives on the World. In much the way that AAA courses will teach an appreciation for world diversity by focusing on individual cultures, courses in scientific perspectives will develop students' understanding of the impact of science by examining specific areas such as Geology Outdoors, Aztec and Mayan Mysteries, Computers and Communications, or Critical Health Issues (AIDS).

In a proposal for the core curriculum Dovidio wrote that courses in the science component would "explore the issue of what it means to be a person living in a world that has been significantly shaped by science and technology. These courses will focus on the process of science as a way of coming to know one's world."

In the same paper Dovidio wrote that the two areas "most lacking" in the old general education core were courses that focused sufficiently on "the unique nature of scientific inquiry or the importance of science and technology to the modern experience."

When the faculty convened this summer to discuss the new core they arrived at a two-part mission for the scientific perspectives courses. First, the courses must "acquaint students with and involve them in the process of scientific reasoning, methods of verification and scientific explanation." That is, students in the program must be involved in scientific reasoning and usually in experimentation. Second, the courses must "emphasize either the relevance of science to the contemporary experience, or the connection of science to some areas of knowledge or mode of inquiry outside the natural sciences and mathematics."

Several faculty have already introduced pilot courses in the scientific perspectives component. Charles McClennen, who heads the faculty developing courses in scientific perspectives, is offering
a course titled Earth Visions, which is patterned after a course that he team-taught previously. The course focuses on the evidence of change in climate over the geologic time scale. "It helps students to understand that pre-human or natural changes are part of the global reality," says McClennen. "This provides a context, yet also makes our assessment of present-day climate changes more complex." Students can examine which aspects of climate change are natural, for example, and which are caused by man.

Like many core courses, McClennen's will be interdisciplinary, looking not only at the cause and effects of scientific phenomena, but at different cultural views of the world, such as those embraced by American Indians or tribal Africans. "It should lead students to a more refined earth view by the end of the semester," he said.

"With these new courses scientific perspectives become a central part of the core curriculum," said McClennen. "That is something that scientists had hoped for but couldn't always accomplish in previous versions of the general education curriculum."

Beyond requirements

Entirely new in the core curriculum will be opportunities for students to pursue distinction and high distinction in the liberal arts. Dovidio wrote that the new programs "recognize the importance of Colgate's core program," and also "recognize and reward students' achievement of excellence in the liberal arts."

Students must carry a minimum B+ average in the four required core courses - and a 3.0 or better overall - to be eligible for distinction or high distinction. To achieve the honor they would need to complete a major interdisciplinary project and earn a grade of A&shyp; or better in one of the optional upper-level, interdisciplinary courses that will be developed as an extension
of the core curriculum.

In addition, each spring, 13 students who are working on honors projects in their areas of concentration will be invited to participate in a liberal arts core seminar. Participants will write a substantial interdisciplinary paper relevant to their departmental honors work, and present their work in a public forum. Students who complete the invitational core seminar with a grade of A&shyp; or better will have earned High Distinction in the Liberal Arts core curriculum.

"The idea is to take a small group of intellectually curious students who want to supplement what they are doing in their discipline with advanced interdisciplinary work," said Dovidio. "We want people to strive for excellence, just as you would in any endeavor."

Something for everyone

The new general education core curriculum incorporates a number of features beyond teaching methods that make it more flexible. For one, students will no longer be required to take the required courses in sequence. Many faculty expect that aspect of the new core to foster a freshness and sense of anticipation among students.

Second, courses in the new core may be double-counted as credit toward some other area of the curriculum. Selected core courses, for example, will satisfy the requirements of the first-year seminar. In addition to satisfying the mission of a particular core, those courses will also fold in the goals of the first-year seminar, which introduces students to the skills of learning at the college level.

For this year and next, as the college makes the transition to the new core, students who enroll in one of the new pilot AAA courses will be exempted from the Tier II (interdisciplinary studies) requirement of the old core. And students who elect certain pilot courses in the new scientific perspectives core may opt out of the old Tier III (con-temporary problems) requirement.

Dean of the Faculty and Provost Jane Pinchin, who once oversaw general education as Dovidio now does as director of the Division of University Studies, says of the new core: "It is one of the most ambitious and most elegant core curricula in the country." She calls the faculty's overwhelming support of the new program "indicative of their investment in Colgate and in the future of the institution."

Pinchin notes that of the colleges in the country that offer general education, only three to five percent go beyond distribution requirements to offer a core curriculum. "The number who have a core curriculum with a serious science component is even smaller than that," she adds.

"We have always taken the core seriously," says Pinchin. "It is one of the signatures of this institution." The latest revision to that core ensures that Colgate graduates will continue to enter the world with a base of knowledge and experience that equips them to think globally both in their careers and as they continue the lifelong examination of their own identities.