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Adventures in Learning

 

As we were completing work on this issue’s cover story on the pilot curriculum being tried out by 200 freshmen in the College of Arts and Sciences—“This Is Only a Test,” by associate editor Susan Lonkevich—I read an article in The New York Times in which admissions officers from elite universities (including this one) urged prospective applicants to ease up on their resume-building activities and maybe even take an “old-fashioned summer job” while in high school. The reason, the article reported, was that the stress of competing to get into the college of their choice was leaving students too burned-out to benefit from the experience once they’d arrived.
        The story made for a depressing picture of what it must be like to be starting college now. But reading Susan’s story quickly cheered me up. The freshmen she interviewed seemed full of interest and excitement: true adventurers in learning.
        The pilot curriculum replaces the current system of general requirements with team-taught, interdisciplinary courses in four broad areas of knowledge. One of the ideas driving it was to encourage exploration of untried educational alternatives.
        There are doubts about the effectiveness of the curriculum, especially among the science faculty, and no one is predicting it will be adopted wholesale at the end of the experimental phase. Whatever the ultimate decision, though, the courses being offered this semester certainly sound like stimulating, challenging fun. See for yourself starting on page 26.
        One of the great selling points of the interdisciplinary approach—in teaching or research (see “From College Hall,” p. 12)—is that it brings different perspectives to bear on a topic, sparking new juxtapositions and insights. That is also an apt description of the working method of musician and composer Uri Caine C’81, profiled in this issue by Nate Chinen C’98. In projects that freely mix musical genres, periods and styles, he has made a career out of confounding the purists in both classical and jazz camps.
        Back when Uri Caine and I were students in the College, you could fulfill the general requirement by taking three related courses in two fields distinct from your major area.
        I chose anthropology for my social science “cluster.” Those courses came back to me recently when I read an article in The New Yorker called “The Fierce Anthropologist,” by Patrick Tierney—an excerpt from his forthcoming book. It was about Napoleon Chagnon, whose Yanomam–: The Fierce People, I remembered for its vivid and unappealing descriptions. The article accused Chagnon of falsifying his research on the rain-forest tribe and, worse, of possibly helping to foment a deadly epidemic of measles among them.
        Curious, I did a Web search and quickly learned that Tierney’s charges had generated a storm of controversy far beyond the anthropology community. In a scathing critique in the online magazine Slate, I happened upon a reference to Dr. M. Susan Lindee “at the University of Pennsylvania” and promptly e-mailed her to see if she would talk to me about it. (That’s one of the nice things about this job.) Our interview appears in “Gazetteer” on page 22.
        One last connection: Dr. Martha Farah, one of the three professors teaching a pilot curriculum class in cognitive neuroscience, was featured in a Gazette article in March 1998 [“The Fragile Orchestra”] along with Dr. Todd Feinberg C’74. His work with brain-injured patients, described there, is given fuller treatment in his new book, Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self. Around the same time as Feinberg’s book arrived in the office, we also received a copy of Where Is the Mango Princess? by Cathy Crimmins G’81. It describes, with surprising, if often black, humor, her husband’s recovery—far too simple a word—from just the sort of injury Feinberg has studied. Call it logrolling if you will, but we decided that they were each the ideal reviewer of the other’s book. (And yes, they liked them.)

—John Prendergast C’80


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