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What’s Wrong with Undergraduate Education?

Friday’s New Humanism conference looks to revamp curriculum

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Victor Coelho, BU associate provost, is sponsoring tomorrow’s conference Constructing the New Humanist in Undergraduate Education. Photo by Frank Curran

A decade ago, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a scathing report arguing that undergraduate education at research universities needed an overhaul.

“Advanced research and undergraduate teaching have existed on two quite different planes,” the Boyer Report stated, “the first a source of pleasure, recognition, and reward, and the latter a burden shouldered more or less reluctantly to maintain the viability of the institution.”

It’s a conclusion that faculty and administrators at America’s 125 or so research universities, including Boston University, have been arguing and worrying over ever since. Now, Victor Coelho, BU’s associate provost for undergraduate education and a professor of musicology in the College of Fine Arts, has a solution: look to Leonardo.

More specifically, Coelho suggests examining the work of Leonardo da Vinci, the personification of the Renaissance, whose broad, humanistic pursuit of arts, letters, and science is a conceptual model for tomorrow’s daylong conference Constructing the New Humanist in Undergraduate Education.

Faculty from nearly every school and college at BU will present about 40 papers at the conference; topics range from The Pursuit of Peace Expertise to Plato’s Critique of the Internet. The conference will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in two adjoining rooms, with simultaneous presentations, at One Sherborn Street. The conference is free and open to the public and will also be available online in a live Web cast.

The goal, says Coelho, is to examine all facets of undergraduate education at BU. “What does the idea of a core curriculum mean in 2008?” he asks. “What is our responsibility in terms of the political and cultural knowledge students should have? What about inquiry-based learning?” The conference and the discussions it sparks will later be used when a task force in undergraduate education, to be chaired by Coelho, meets this summer. But in the meantime, BU Today caught up with Coelho for more details about the “new humanism” and what it might mean for BU students.

BU Today: What’s the big idea behind this conference?
Coelho:
Over the past 10 years, since the Boyer Report, there have been a number of books about how universities have failed undergraduates and the need for rethinking the priorities of undergraduate education. Many people have looked at the issue and said that we have to go back to great books and to hell with multiculturalism. And then there’s another stream of thought that many universities are considering: a complete change in how people teach and learn. A lot of people are trying to steer in between these two directions.

There’s a very dynamic culture now at this university, an intersection of technology, history, and social networking, a complete change in how undergrads are looking at themselves and their own careers. Still, as much as we’re looking to the future, we are a university with fields that have a venerable past, and we need to decide how to merge that history with the future. So historically, the Renaissance seemed like an appropriate model for a time that remodeled the past in a completely new way.

So what are some issues of undergraduate education that will be discussed?
When I put out the call for papers, I asked people to think about how it’s not just about undergraduate education being a series of new courses. It’s about how do we promote civic and cultural responsibility among students. How can we get them to think as people in a matrix of arts and sciences instead of just choosing one or the other? How can we equip students to bring an interdisciplinary sense of knowledge to their life after graduation? How can we do this in curriculum, courses, and teaching?

Creativity runs across every discipline. So we want to try and have a university in which that can be part of all the disciplines. Sometimes that might mean inquiry-based learning so as to make sure students come out of courses with a project, an application. The other thing is being able to look at a single object in multiple directions. How can learning transcend the boundaries of a classroom’s four walls?

What might that mean in practical terms?
Well, the idea of a core is definitely changing, and the Core Curriculum is having its own sessions within the conference. Somehow we have to lower the walls that exist between disciplines. You have to at least make it possible for students who are interested to move across disciplines more freely. Right now there’s a lot of notation in the course catalogue about course and degree requirements that makes it very difficult for students to do that.

Recently I worked with the Office of Information Technology on this course selection database that crawls through all the course descriptions at BU. You can put in keywords to find all the courses with descriptions having those words, and you would be amazed at how many people are discussing the same thing. For instance, in typing in theoretical physics, you would have no idea that there’s an art history course discussing theoretical physics. Or put in Africa, and you’d be amazed at how many courses at this university deal with Africa from so many perspectives. It showed me how fluid a university could be. You could actually see all of the possibilities of a university teaching in a holistic manner, allowing students to stay tethered to a major, but have that tie be very, very long.

Also, one of the experiences here at BU has to be one of community. What’s happened with universities is that we have become slightly sterile, in the sense that people aren’t talking to each other. But where they are talking to each other, a lot, is in social networking sites. So, it’s not that students and faculty aren’t talking to each other, but that we’re not giving them the right spaces and forums to do so. Community also means instilling shared values — that should be the goal of the University.

Finally, these days statistics are showing that company CEOs want people who can communicate with others, who have the ability to work as a team, and who can speak well. These are skills. And we often don’t teach those things, or if we do teach them, it’s not something that BU is known for. These skills have to be integrated into the idea of undergraduate education.

Creating the New Humanist in University Undergraduate Education takes place on Friday, April 18, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Metcalf Trustees Ballroom, One Sherborn St., ninth floor.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

6 Comments

6 Comments on What’s Wrong with Undergraduate Education?

  • Dan on 04.17.2008 at 10:05 am

    I’m a CAS ’06 grad, BA in Biology. I think I wasted a lot of time in CAS being forced to take humanities classes that had nothing to do with my area of study. There’s nothing wrong with a broad curriculum- for those who desire it- but lets also opt to make a more focused and streamlined program available.

  • Anonymous on 04.17.2008 at 10:30 pm

    One word: INSULAR

  • Vivek on 04.24.2008 at 12:26 pm

    Scientists Need Humanities Training

    In response to the 2006 Biology grad, and to students of science — scientists are often criticized for being socially awkward and unable to communicate their ideas clearly. Think about how many science talks you come away from confused because of poor presentation. As science students, some forget that we live in the context of the world, and that this very science we study has meaning because of the relationships it has with humanities (science, after all, is a descendant of philosophy). I think BU and Prof. Coelho are doing a great thing in trying to encourage interdisciplinary learning. In the long run, it will help breed more eloquent scientists who can make science more accessible. I was a Chem and Classics double major, and I am certainly indebted to the humanities for making me a better scientist.

  • Vivek on 04.25.2008 at 10:31 am

    Scientists need the Humanities

    In response to the 2006 Biology grad, and to students of science — scientists are often criticized for being socially awkward and unable to communicate their ideas clearly. Think about how many science talks you come away from confused because of poor presentation. As science students, some forget that we live in the context of the world, and that this very science we study has meaning because of the relationships it has with the humanities (science, after all, is a descendant of philosophy). I think BU and Prof. Coelho are doing a great thing in trying to encourage interdisciplinary learning. In the long run, it will help breed more eloquent scientists who can make science more accessible. I was a Chem and Classics double major, and I am certainly indebted to the humanities for making me a better scientist.

  • Brian Sirman, CAS '02; MET '08; GRS '12 on 04.29.2008 at 5:29 pm

    As Allan Bloom rolls over in his grave...

    I find it terribly disturbing that a man who casts courses called “Funk” and “Rolling Stones” as scholarly musicological endeavors is responsible for revamping undergraduate education for the entire university. If we persist in replacing Beethoven with Mick Jagger, Dante with Dan Brown, and Plato with Facebook, I fear that “The Dark Ages” will be a far more apt metaphor for this project than “The Renaissance.”

  • High School Senior on 02.06.2009 at 2:34 pm

    Good article. I am personally in favor of the great books idea. Its been done before, and it worked pretty well. Having reat Aristotle’s Ethics and other great books, it is impossible to study the classics without indulging in inquiry based learning. Perhaps a semester diversity sequence can be added as a part of the core curriculum. This sequence would read the Quaran, Confucius, the Buddhist writings, the Indian Holy Books, and African-Oral Literature. This would do a much better job at creating appreciation for diversity than a smorgusboard of diversity courses.

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