is Only a Test, continued
conference: College director of academic affairs Kent Peterman,
Dean Richard Beeman, and Chief Justice John Marshmallow (floor).
Under the existing
education plan, students must fulfill a general requirement that consists
of 10 courses from a wide selection in seven sectors of knowledge: Society;
History and Tradition; Arts and Letters; Formal Reasoning and Analysis;
the Living World; the Physical World; and Science Studies.
pilot curriculum reduces the general requirement to four courses in four
sectors of knowledge that cross over disciplinary boundaries: Structure
and Value in Human Societies; Science, Culture and Society; Earth, Space
and Life; and Imagination, Representation and Reality. Students take one
in each of their first four semesters at Penn. In addition, they must
complete a significant research or creative project in the departments
of their majors. During their sophomore year, they must submit written
plans to their advisors outlining a proposed course of study. According
to Dr. Frank Warner, emeritus professor of mathematics at Penn and former
chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Education, which devised the curriculum,
one of the main goals was to introduce students early in their academic
career to the vast intellectual landscape of the University, to the many
fields which they have not previously studied, so they can make intelligent
use of the remaining two years they have here. We thought we should do
it with four [general-requirement] courses that are broadly interdisciplinary,
and for the most part, team taught.
plans direct students to fulfill the individual requirements of their
majors, demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language after completing
an intermediate level of study, and take a writing-intensive course as
well as a quantitative-skills course.
was excited about the fact that I had more freedom to choose my courses
and could play a bigger role in shaping my college academic experience,
says Kathleen Huang C04, a freshman from New York who attended a specialized
high school in Brooklyn where she played volleyball and majored in environmental
science. She was lured to Penn by its promise of generous financial aid.
The smaller number of general requirements in the pilot curriculum left
room on her schedule last semester to sample a womens studies seminar,
which I absolutely love. At the moment she wants to major in communication
and urban studies, and possibly minor in womens studies. She plans to
take as many advanced-level seminars as possible over the next two years,
because she believes thats the best way to decide if she likes a subject.
My friends all say how jealous they are of me because they wish they
were in the pilot program.
academic plan Huang creates will likely look different from any other
pilot participants. One student might choose to sample a large number
of humanities courses outside a demanding science major; another might
use the extra electives to go beyond the proficiency level in a foreign
language. Students could also assemble thematic clusters of classes in
a subject other than their majors which interests them.
much about the pilot curriculum, says Beeman, really has to do with
students thinking imaginatively about what they want to do with their
education. At a place as complicated as Penn, there are no one or five
or 20 paths that are the correct paths. There are hundreds of correct
might say the same of college curriculums, which vary from campus to campus.
In evaluating the pilot, Beeman emphasizes the need to decide whats right
for Penn, not to look for trends at other universities. In fact, he notes,
Many of the schools like Penn moved, some years after we did, to fashioning
general-education requirements that are strikingly similar to the one
we presently have in place. And thus, those requirements havent gotten
old enough to provoke any major evaluations. Just last school year,
Duke University overhauled its curriculum and ended up with one that is
much more extensive and complicated even than Penns present general
requirement. In some senses, Beeman says, the pilot curriculum here
is the polar opposite of [that] curriculum.
theme that Beeman does observe among peer universities is a greater emphasis
on critical skillswriting, quantitative reasoning, foreign languages
and, more recently, oral communications. I think all of us are agreed
that we need to pay more attention to nurturing critical skills, and the
pilot curriculum certainly goes in that direction as well. Outside the
pilot, the University is in the process of implementing a foreign-language
certificate program that encourages students to go beyond minimum proficiency
in a foreign language. Another initiative, Speaking Across the University,
has trained undergraduate advisors to help peers improve their oral communication
skills; nine courses which give special attention to oral presentations
were offered in the College last semester through this program. Beeman
says the College hopes to work more self-consciously, though not exclusively,
with students in the pilot program to develop these skills.
Dr. Stephen Morse
hunches his shoulders, dips his head and trudges into the classroom to
the curious amusement of five-dozen students. Suppose, he says, I walked
into the room kind of like this and started weeping. One of youask me
how I feel.
do you feel? ventures a student.
the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Lawwho is also a professor
of psychology and lawresponds in monotone, I feel really blue. I feel
like lifes not worth living. Anyone got the diagnosis?
suppose you ask me some further questions, Morse tells them, then goes
through a series of symptoms, including sleep- and weight-loss.
all got the diagnosis right without knowing a thing about my brain, about
my nervous system, about my endocrine system, about anything else in the
world except whatwhat were the data you used to make the diagnosis?
begins another session of the cognitive neuroscience class which Morse
co-teaches with Dr. Martha Farah, professor of psychology, and Dr. Richard
Samuels, research associate in philosophy. Though all three professors
come to each class, the course content is divided into sections, and Morse
this afternoon is making the transition from cognitive psychology and
cognitive neuroscience, led by Farah, to the study of a host of legal
and moral issues.
it be nice if we could have a value-free definition of mental disorders,
especially if were going to think about them in medicalized or psychiatrized
terms, as most of us do? Well, the problem is thats very difficult to
do with behavior, he says. Because behavior is obviously going to be
imbedded in culture.
one knows what causes mental disorders, Morse goes on to say. Do not
think for a minute that because we have treatments that seem to be effective,
and indeed, are effective, that that tells you what the cause is.
For example, Prozac, which affects the neurotransmitters in the brain,
seems to be good for depression. Does that mean that depression is a
neurotransmitter problem? Maybe so, he says, and maybe not.
about this: You get a bad grade on a quiz in Col 002 [this course]. You
were in the top of your high-school class. Now your self-esteem is shot
to hell and you feel really rotten, Morse says. So your roommate pours
you a really stiff shot of Scotch and you down it. And all of a sudden,
you feel better. Do you suffer from alcohol-deficiency syndrome? I dont
think so. Later in the hour, Farah gets her turn to make the pitch for
a biological basis for mental disorders, continuing a semester of interdisciplinary
banter between the two professors (with plenty of give-and-take, as neither
scholar takes a hardline approach to these issues). In depressed people,
Farah says, parts of the prefrontal cortex and certain subcortical regions
are abnormally active, compared to the brains of non-depressed people.
And while its not the case, she says, that you can take a brainscan
of a person and tell whether that person is depressed, a number of differences
in brain function are interestingly correlated with the severity of a
depressive episode. And, by and large, theyre only there when
a person is depressed. Evidence shows that the more time you spend depressed,
the more likely you are to get depressed again, Farah adds. My guess
is that the hyperactivity in these brain circuits lowers the threshold
for descending into depression, which is a reason for seeking treatment
you scan [a persons brain] between episodes of depression, then the brain
looks normal with one exception: the higher the amygdala activity, the
more likely you are to relapse. While functional changes may come and
go, Farah notes, they seem to result in lasting structural changes. Scientists
conjecture that when you are acutely depressed, what you have are these
out of control, unhealthy levels of activity that actually kill neurons
in these parts of the brain.
original picture of this course, says Farah during a phone interview,
was that the three of us would interact a lot. I kind of had the Car
Talk radio show in mind. I thought the three of us would make a good
Tom and Rayand someone elseon the brain. But then at the beginning of
the semester we decided to be more restrained for the sake of letting
students participate in discussions. As the class has overcome its shyness
and started to talk more, weve become a little more gabby ourselves.
she heard the College was looking for team-taught courses to offer in
the pilot curriculum, Farah, who directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience,
says, It occurred to me that [this field] is ripe for that kind of interdisciplinary
approach. Not only is it an exciting new science in terms of what were
learning in the lab, but its got important implications for the way we
think about ourselves as people, as moral agents, and about various kinds
of social-policy issues and legal issues.
immediately thought of Morse, whom she had met at a party a year or two
earlier. Our conversation is still so vivid in my mind because he is
such a ball of fire. He really enjoys the sort of controversy that brain-based
analyses of human behavior engender, so we had this rollicking kind of
discussion. Samuels was highly recommended to her by mutual acquaintancesand
he has just been a fantastic person to teach with too."
the whole she thinks the pilot program is a great way to define a curriculum
and get students engaged right away in exciting ideas that dont necessarily
fit into traditional academic-department categoriesand for them to see
faculty from different disciplines interacting.
interdisciplinary courses are hardly a radical idea on college campuses,
Beeman points out. But at a time when the knowledge base is expanding,
even exploding, so rapidly, I think a concerted effort to open up broad
fields of knowledge to our students is a very important experiment.
would say at least some of the students seem really turned on by this
interdisciplinary nexus of ideas, Farah says. My one worry, and Im
guessing its generalized to the other classes, is that some of the bridges
between fields were trying to make are really so ambitious that it might
be a little overwhelming for a first-year student. The quizzes and exam
will tell for sure.
hopes the class will give students a new perspective on a lot of other
fields they might go into, including cognitive neuroscience. Thinking
about the human mind and what makes people do what they do is relevant
to everything from history to art to an engineering problem that involves
a user interface.
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