DISCUSSION On The College's Proposed Curriculum

In April the School of Arts and Sciences' Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) presented to the SAS Faculty a proposal to exempt some 200 members of the Class of 2004 from the current General Education Requirements, and give them instead a pilot curriculum outlined by the Committee (see summary). The following comments on that proposed curriculum were written originally for the Talk About Teaching series presented monthly on Almanac's back cover by The College in cooperation with the Lindback Society. Too long for the one-page format of Talk About Teaching, the discussion was moved to this space and is open to comment by other members of the University, either directly to Dr. Frank Warner, chair of CUE, at fwarner@math.upenn.edu, or for publication to Almanac. Dr. Hackney is the former president of the University who returned to the faculty last year after chairing the National Endowment for the Humanities. --Ed.

Give Three Cheers and Go Ahead

by Sheldon Hackney

Having participated in the vigorous year-long deliberations of the Committee on Undergraduate Education, I was a little disappointed that the Faculty Meeting of the School of Arts and Sciences did not simply give three cheers and vote to move ahead with the pilot curriculum that CUE had proposed. Instead, the Faculty authorized continued and more detailed planning, but it wants to consider the proposal again in December in the light of additional planning and what it hopes will be a substantial discussion throughout the fall term.

This outcome is certainly reasonable. Curricular changes are always difficult because the faculty is full of very smart and caring people, each of whom has his own ideas about undergraduate education, and each of whom sees the task from a particular disciplinary vantage point. It would therefore be astounding if any large new idea about the course of study were not controversial. Furthermore, it soon occurred to me that the faculty in general had not had the benefit of the lengthy discussions in which I took part as a member of CUE. With hopes of furthering the important discussion of the pilot curriculum, I will sketch here some thoughts that have brought me to the point of being very enthusiastic about the proposed pilot curriculum.

Even though much of the controversy has centered on the general education component, it is important to see the pilot curriculum as a full set of degree requirements, not just a new scheme of four courses for the general education component. The pilot curriculum includes the major, newly mandating a research or equivalent component; the fundamental skills requirements with an oral communications component added to the writing requirement; proficiency in a foreign language, as in the present curriculum; the new general education requirement; and electives. One of the real attractions of the pilot curriculum is that it provides a much more generous allotment of electives, allowing students greater range and creativity in structuring an educational experience to suit their aspirations and interests.

The modern world is such that we can not possibly reach agreement about what an educated person should know in the 21st century. It is a poor faculty member who cannot make a compelling case that her discipline is a must for any educated person. We have only 32 courses with which to work. Some current programs demand 36, but they are even more crowded than the 32-course degree programs. Within this 32-course curriculum, we must accommodate the major, a foreign language, the fundamental skills (quantitative analysis, writing, and speaking), the general education component, and electives. I believe that we could easily fill a 64-course curriculum with courses for which a convincing argument could be made that each one is a "must" for a well-educated citizen of the 21st century. Because this approach is so clearly impossible, we have to think in new ways about the undergraduate educational experience.

In particular, we have to think of general education in new ways, bearing in mind that it is only a part of each student's course of study. It must not be expected to do all of the work of the curriculum. We also need to bear in mind that our students come to us already well exposed to various branches of knowledge and ways of thinking. In a real sense, our entrance requirements are part of our course of study.

There are several useful attitudes to have in thinking about general education:

a. General education should excite students about learning, and it should give them a sense of the vastness of the terrain of accumulated human knowledge. Finding joy and some fulfillment in the exploration of that terrain is one of the goals of the general education experience.

b. The general education component should help students situate themselves in the world of today.

c. The general education component should make students conversant with the major ideas that are at play in the contemporary world, including something of the evolution of those ideas. Subject matter from the sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts should be included.

d. There is no unique solution to this task. In fact, if the courses are well taught, there will be many good solutions.

e. It is important to focus upon subjects, or possibly modes of inquiry, and not upon disciplines. This is not the place to show off disciplinary prowess, nor to try to give students training in the methodology of any particular discipline. The challenges and potential pitfalls involved in the creation of new knowledge will be explored in depth in the major. The real world is not divided into disciplines, nor should be the general education requirement.

We must confront the claim that the science content of the proposed four courses will do no more than teach "about" science, rather than having students learn by "doing" science. This one issue occupied a major part of the CUE's discussions last spring.

I accept the assertion that students learn something entirely different, and perhaps more valuable, when they "do" science, as opposed to studying about it. The same is true of my own discipline, history. There is a sense in which one can't be a critical consumer of historical narratives, analyses and other texts intended to convey some understanding of the past unless one has participated in the process of creating new historical knowledge from primary source material. I suppose this is true in every discipline, and it is apparently felt acutely by scientists.

The problem is that science is so important in the contemporary world that we all need to be conversant with an impossibly wide range of scientific exploration. Our ways of understanding the natural world, our notions of the meaning or lack of meaning of human life, our source of metaphor through which we express and shape our conceptions of reality and are in turn shaped by them, our economic enterprises, our policies about the physical environment, and other fundamentally important aspects of living in the 21st century derive heavily from the sciences. The dilemma is that there is simply too much.

Molecular biology is pervasive throughout the life sciences, so one cannot hope to understand much of what is transpiring in those areas of knowledge without some sense of molecular biology. Mapping the human genome is an exciting collective project that holds out the promise of fundamental advances in medicine through gene therapy. We are at the same time excited by a steady flow of new observations and cosmological theories having to do with the origin of the universe. New terms from the sciences have crept into our everyday vocabulary: big bang, black holes, supernova, etc. At the other end of the scale, particle physics is pursuing knowledge about the smallest units of matter, and we are fascinated by quarks and neutrinos. Is it practical to find a clean source of energy through controlling nuclear fusion? The origins of life, and the notion of human evolution, are still causing controversy in the political arena, even as new pieces to the puzzle are being found and evaluated. The relationship between religious faith and scientific knowledge is again a lively conversation in the public arena. Plate tectonics provides an essential way of understanding the geography of the earth. How can we hope to understand the current discussions of global warming, climate shifts, the threat to tropical forests and to species of plants and animals, not to mention the threat to ecological systems on which we depend for life? Is acid rain a threat? What are the possible cures, and what are the consequences of those cures? Do fluorocarbons threaten the atmosphere? How many people can this good earth support in steady state?

Any one of those areas of knowledge, and many others to which I have not alluded, would justify a lifelong career of investigation, yet one could easily argue that ordinary non-specialists also need some sense of the state of knowledge in each of them in order to function productively as responsible citizens. Of course, the four college years are not the only time when one can learn what one needs to know, and no individual's course of study can possibly contain courses that allow the student to "do" science in all of the important areas. We have to make choices about how to compromise.

I have no reason to doubt those who believe that a student who "does" freshman chemistry, for instance, including a lab, will somehow have a better understanding of physics and biology and biochemistry and neuroscience and psychology and the claims made by scientists in other areas. That may suggest that scientists have a different kind of knowledge from non-scientific scholars, that they think in a way that is different from humanists and social scientists but that is shared among scientists in widely disparate fields. I am suspicious of this claim, I confess, while being profoundly aware of the vast areas of specific knowledge and specific techniques for gathering data in which I am deficient. I would not ask anyone to accept my side of that argument. For current purposes, the relevant thing is that many of our science-averse students now manage to avoid the sort of "doing" of science that would count with most science faculty. I think it would be a gain, therefore, for those students to take two courses in the pilot curriculum that are specifically designed to introduce students rigorously to the important scientific ideas that are shaping our thinking about our world. In evaluating the pilot curriculum, we should compare the impact of this approach with what we achieve through our current curriculum. Whether or not science disciplines are selected for the use of free electives will also provide a significant measure.

What to do about science-adept students has been a matter of intense discussion within CUE. I think that well-taught courses within the four-course general education component of the pilot curriculum would be both interesting and profitable for science-adept students, but perhaps this is an area for collegial compromise in view of the strong feeling of some faculty that science-adept students would be bored by the general education courses that deal with science. There is also the problem that foundation requirements for science majors leave little room for electives in the first two years. In the proposed pilot curriculum, therefore, there is a science "track" that I wish it didn't have but am willing to support because I am convinced the pilot curriculum as a whole provides such an exciting step forward. Besides, there is always the possibility that I am wrong.

There are also a host of pragmatic doubts about the pilot. Will the College be able to staff the four general education courses with an adequate number of enthusiastic faculty? Can we design an evaluation process that will tell us in three or four years whether the pilot has been successful? Even if it is successful, will it be possible to scale the pilot curriculum up to accommodate an entire class? These are serious questions, and it is good that we are facing them early so that we can try to solve those problems in our planning.

Finally, however, the pilot curriculum is an experiment. Its outcome is uncertain. I am among those who think the promises of the pilot curriculum are so substantial that we ought to give it our best try.


Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 4, September 21, 1999