This is Only a Test, continued


Photo by Addison Geary

Well disciplined: Dr. Martha Farah, Dr. Richard Samuels and Dr. Stephen Morse mix psychology, philosophy and law in the classroom.

High Ideals
and Hot Air
    “It’s an incredibly depressing history.” Rick Beeman is leaning over a table in his Logan Hall office, speaking with great animation about American curricular reform over the past two centuries, while his Bernese mountain dog, Chief Justice John Marshmallow, presides sleepily over the carpet.
“From Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard who introduced an all-electives curriculum in 1869—a brilliant and bold idea” which, after years of faculty debate, “got shot down”—to the present, Beeman says, “the history of faculty discussions of curricular proposals is one of disputation, of passionate defense and of disciplinary self-interest.”
Professors are among “the smartest people in the world,” he goes on to say, “and their powers of abstract reasoning exceed those of any other occupational group. So you get faculty involved in a hypothetical, abstract debate of an ideal curriculum, and you get a lot of impressive argumentation and hot air.”
As a result, revamping a college curriculum can be “a wearying process. And most of the time, whatever kind of incisiveness existed in an original curricular proposal gets sort of watered down.” Beeman hopes this won’t happen at Penn. “The hope is that when we have the real debate on our next curriculum, we’ll have a lot of empirical evidence that will enable the faculty to come to a conclusion.”
The faculty here “is more engaged in undergraduate education than just about any faculty I know of,” he adds. “The challenge is engaging their attention in a purposeful way that will enable us to move forward consensually to find the right curriculum for Penn”: one that “suits the culture of the institution and which the faculty fervently, sincerely and uncynically believe in.”
One obstacle to the implementation of the pilot curriculum, he acknowledges, is that a number of the science faculty “abhor the idea.”
Dr. Eric Weinberg, professor of biology, is one of the critics of the curriculum, arguing that it doesn’t give non-science majors enough exposure to pure science. He’d like to see at least one general-requirement course delve deeply into a physical science and another into biological science, instead of the interdisciplinary approach that is being used. He also contends that the general-requirement courses, while good classes in their own right, take away from the time science majors need to fulfill their many course requirements. “And if a student is thinking of doing a biology major, but is not doing quite so well,” he says, “they also have to explore alternative majors” early on at Penn. “If they take the pilot curriculum, it’s not possible to do that.”
The third objection Weinberg has, “is more of a problem of philosophy. I would rather see depth than breadth,” he says. “I would recommend the general-requirement plan adopted by the University of Rochester,” in which students must choose a major along with two concentration areas, each consisting of at least three related, advanced-level courses.
Dr. Larry Gladney, associate professor of physics and chair of the pilot-curriculum general-requirement committee, has heard complaints from science faculty that students won’t be exposed sufficiently to the scientific method or learn enough about an individual discipline to know if they would be interested in pursuing it. He’s also heard arguments about the potential negative impact that the general requirements could have on scheduling for science majors. But, he says, “I haven’t seen, with the students I’ve been advising, any particular concern. They come in pretty much knowing what they want to do with science and understanding that they’re going to be exempted from the [Earth, Space and Life] requirement anyway, and therefore take it out of only a general interest. They relish having more freedom to take other courses.”
“I think we have to be more creative,” adds Gladney, who created a couple of interdisciplinary science and math courses for freshmen through the existing curriculum. “Science faculty tend to be rather set upon the specific discipline they’re in.”
“We have a lot of evidence,” Beeman says, “to suggest that this method [of concentration], however good it may be for training students who are exceptionally talented in a particular discipline, has only caused those students who have entered Penn fearful and ignorant of science to leave Penn similarly fearful and ignorant of science.
“The issue of science education for students who are not going to be scientists is one, I believe, of vital importance not only to Penn but to the nation,” Beeman continues. “As Frank Warner has said, ‘Do we want members of Congress voting on appropriations for science agencies, who are mostly going to be non-scientists, to be as ignorant of the basic ideas in science as most of our non-science population is today?’”
Warner says he’ll be curious to find out if more students decide to become science majors under the pilot curriculum. Another question to consider, Beeman says, is whether those who do not become science majors are motivated to take additional science classes outside the pilot requirements. They’ll be sifting through transcripts over the next four years for clues. In addition, Beeman says, the College should find a way to test students on their general scientific literacy at the beginning and end of their University careers.

Going Global
    Throughout the semester, they’ve pored over texts on imperial conquest and analyzed foreign trade, but the topic for discussion in today’s Globalization and its Historical Significance class happens to be one many students can personally relate to: clothing. Dr. Mauro GuillÈn, a sociologist who is assistant professor of management at Wharton, has asked the class to visit local retailers and snoop through the labels to find out where the clothes they wear are made. Partitions are drawn in the large classroom, so GuillÈn and the other two faculty members teaching this course—Dr. Brian Spooner, professor of anthropology—and Dr. Lee Cassannelli, associate professor of history —can work with smaller groups.
It quickly becomes clear, based on students’ findings in GuillÈn’s discussion group, that there exists a complex relationship between geography and price-tag. One student went to Nordstrom and was amazed to find a coat “designed in France.” But when he looked at the label more carefully, he discovered it was manufactured in Hong Kong.
“That’s a gimmick, right?” GuillÈn says. “Designed in Italy, made of French materials, assembled in Sri Lanka. Because if they only say ‘made in Sri Lanka,’ it probably will be more difficult for that firm to go out and charge a higher price. This tells you where the money is going.”
To show students how this phenomenon extends beyond the clothing industry, he cites the example of the French company that sells Laughing Cow cheese. “They actually make the cheese in different places in the world with local milk and local ingredients. But they know they can sell it for a higher price if they claim somehow that’s it’s a French cheese. So on the label, they say,. ‘Laughing Cow Cheese, printed in France.’ And on the back, they say, ‘Made in the USA.’”
The class analyzes what goes into the pricetag on brand-name athletic shoes and discusses how less than 10 percent of the cost comes from labor. The students report mixed feelings about wearing clothes made by people whose salaries fall well below the American minimum wage. “My problem with it is there’s no opportunity for improvement within those countries,” one student says, while another questions what options she has. “What am I going to do, go naked?”
“You can ask those corporations to be accountable,” GuillÈn suggests. Human-rights groups do want Nike to make money, “but they want Nike and all the others to make less money,” he says. “It strikes me that there is some room for improvement.”
In GuillÈn’s view, general-requirement classes in the pilot curriculum are “a great idea to broaden and expose [students] to some of the most important issues affecting the world right now. It gives students a breadth of knowledge that helps them tackle some of the big issues better.”
In the globalization class, he explains, “We’re trying to not only give them data and events, but also different ways—anthropological, historical, sociological—of thinking about it.” And, he points out, “Not only do we come from different national backgrounds—I’m from Spain, Brian is British and Lee is American—but we’ve also done research on different parts of the world. Within the confines of this teaching team, we have expertise on pretty much every major region of the world.
“Of course,” he says, “we always have to remind ourselves that these are first-year students. They cannot be as sophisticated as seniors with their approaches.”
Most of them, anyway.
Zwelithini Tunyiswa’s first name, roughly translated from the Xhosa language, means “Child of the World.” “I’ve kind of stuck with it,” says the freshman, who hails from Capetown, South Africa, but has spent the past several years studying and traveling in other countries. Tunyiswa C’04, who speaks “probably 10” different languages and wants to double-major in communication and international relations, embraces the idea of bridging disciplinary and cultural boundaries. So it’s fitting that he chose to participate in the pilot curriculum and that he selected Globalization for his first general-requirement class. He seems at home in the class, where he is preparing a research paper that examines the migratory patterns of Europe during the Roman Empire, the time of Charlemagne and the present European Union.
One reason is because of his personal experiences with race and with a global education. “Imagine you’re a connoisseur of racism,” he says. “The filet mignon would be South Africa. The system is messed up and it’s going to take 30 to 40 years to get to the bottom of the problem,” Tunyiswa says. “From there I went to [high school in] California, where everything is PC, and everybody seems happy. I thought they were high most of the time.” He then enrolled in Britain’s United World College of the Atlantic, a prep school with students from 90 different countries, “where all cultures are mingling. Israelis and Palestinians were lofting together.”
As he reads in his English literature class about race in America through the eyes of Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison, Tunyiswa is still trying to decipher Penn’s social culture, which he has found less rewarding so far than his academic life. “Penn is very diverse, but the diversity never mixes.” He sees a predominantly white fraternity scene and an African-American scene. “I’m stuck in between because I’m neither. I stay in my room.”
Many of the topics covered in the globalization class aren’t new to him. But he appreciates how the topics are approached from different perspectives. “The way these disciplines are distinct, yet similar, is very interesting to me. Maybe the subject matter is wide,” he says, “but I think it’s beautiful that it’s wide.”

previous page | next page 




Jan/Feb Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 1/2/01