Members of the Seattle Pacific University faculty have done what few of their counterparts in other American universities have been able or willing to do. They recently approved a "Common Curriculum" required for all students and defining the core of a destinctly SPU education.
Who would expect that a university's general education program might become the object of national controversy? That's what happened to Stanford University a decade ago when its internal dispute about required reading for freshmen hit the headlines. Heated by accusations of cultural elitism, racism and sexism in the selection of texts, the conflict illustrated the extraordinary difficulty of defining the "core" of a university education today.
One irony of such a public debate is the relatively little significance attributed to general education by students themselves. Research shows that most students view required liberal arts courses as something to be "gotten out of the way" in order to move on to what really matters: classes in a major that will help graduates get a good-paying job.
It was within this national context of fragmented learning and frustrated students that Seattle Pacific University faculty conducted a multi-year examination of general education. They looked at how students learn, how that learning prepares them for life, and what should constitute the core of a distinctly SPU education.
The result is both "unusual and innovative," says Professor of English Joyce Erickson, who led the General Education Task Force and who investigated the best ideas other universities had to offer. "Educational researchers and theorists conclude that what is needed is a genuine four-year core curriculum that links the liberal arts and basic human issues within a cohesive community. That is exactly what SPU has approved for implementation next fall."
Only five percent of four-year institutions in the United States, most of them very small and homogenous, offer such a curriculum. Until now, no comprehensive university in an urban setting with an equal mix of residential and commuter students requires participation in common learning over four years.
To be launched in Autumn Quarter 1998, "The Common Curriculum" at Seattle Pacific "addresses the real-lived problems of human beings and brings to bear, in developmental stages, the insights of various disciplines," explains Les Steele, professor of Christian ministries and member of the General Education Task Force. The eight courses of The Common Curriculum combine with exploratory classes in specific disciplines and major requirements to make up the path to a baccalaureate degree from SPU.
Seattle Pacific students will begin in the first quarter of their freshman year with University Seminar, an intensive exploration of a special interdisciplinary topic. The maximum of 20 students enrolled in each course form a "cohort" and attend other freshman classes in The Common Curriculum together, with their University Seminar professor serving as their academic advisor.
Assistant Professor of Political Science John West is not only "thrilled" about the challenge of teaching a University Seminar on "Politics in Film and Literature," but about the benefit to students. "I want to help them find a personal connection to the University and get excited about the value of a Christian liberal arts education."
In their freshman, sophomore and junior years at SPU, students will participate in two parallel sequences of required courses. The first sequence explores the human story in three classes titled Character and Community; The West and the World; and Belief, Morality and the Modern Mind. The second sequence looks at the foundations of faith in Christian Formation, Christian Scriptures and Christian Theology. A capstone senior course in the student's major "adds application and personal calling to the picture," says Provost Bruce Murphy, who put his own enthusiastic stamp of approval on the program after taking office this summer.
Another distinctive feature of the program is the "SPU canon," a common set of literary and artistic works to be studied in core classes. The works, say Erickson and Steele, are not intended to define the best of human achievement, but to encourage campus-wide discussion of the themes of a Seattle Pacific education. "Experiences such as the recent visit by Chaim Potok prove that reading books together brings new levels of connection and understanding," asserts Steele.
How is it that SPU is willing to undertake such a groundbreaking venture as The Common Curriculum? "We are able to define an academic core because we have a center," offers Erickson. "In a Christian institution like ours, there's an essential shared world view that you seldom find in a university setting."
The impact is far-reaching, says President Philip Eaton, who initiated the review of general education as provost in 1994. "When you start talking about what you're going to require of all students, it's as significant as anything you can do. A core curriculum is key to our comprehensive plan for the future."
"We're putting the 'uni' back in university," echoes Murphy. "The Common Curriculum introduces students to the relevance and unity of knowledge, so that they can prepare for the kind of service that makes a difference in - and doesn't just fit in - the world."