Dr. Jennifer Long, Director
General education programs are designed to give students skills that they will need regardless of their majors: how to write well, how to construct a logical argument, how to use mathematics to solve problems. But in most universities, the general education programs are regarded by students and faculty alike as an obligation to be grudgingly satisfied on the way to the “real” education that awaits in the major course of study. At USAO, however, the general education core is the central component of the liberal arts experience. The Interdisciplinary Studies Core Curriculum (IDS) differs from other general education programs in four key ways: the breadth of the program, the structure of the program, its emphasis on interdisciplinarity, and the use of team teaching.
A Broad Liberal Arts Curriculum
An educated person does not merely possess a set of skills. A truly educated person understands that ideas expressed in literature, philosophy, art, music, religion, and political and social movements have changed the world. USAO students are taught those ideas and come to understand the complicated processes through which ideas are created, and how events in the world are reflections of those ideas, and how the events generate new ideas. Learning to think in this way cannot be accomplished quickly. Therefore our students commit 50 credit hours, spanning their entire college career, to the IDS program. This commitment also fosters a connection between faculty and students who, unable to completely withdraw into one academic department, interact with a wide range of people, ideas and viewpoints on a daily basis.
USAO eschews the menu approach to general education, in which students choose from many courses that have been pieced together into broad categories. Instead, all USAO students take the same sequence of courses, building a common experience that binds together current students, faculty and alumni. This common set of courses is structured to lead students through a logical sequence of learning.
The first courses begin with the concept of the Individual, as no one can fully understand the larger world and their place in it unless they first have a firm understanding of themselves as individuals. Courses then gradually broaden the student’s perspective, building concentric circles to include the Natural World, the Community and the Nation, and finally the World of Ideas, encompassing the history of cultures and the philosophies, religions, literature, and fine arts that have shaped human civilization.
The result of this course structure is a student who understands where individuals fit into the greater scheme of culture and historical changes—and how important individual persons and single ideas can be.
The IDS core recognizes that the problems of the world are complex, and so are the answers; therefore no one academic discipline can begin to address complicated issues alone. The IDS core purposively integrates ideas from across the disciplines in a meaningful way, through courses designed to incorporate many academic traditions simultaneously and draw connections among them. Students gain the tools needed to examine issues and ideas from multiple perspectives, and to realize that dialogue is vitally important to the problem-solving process.
Perhaps nothing is more illustrative of this approach than the three-course World Thought and Culture sequence, which leads students on a Humanities-based journey through some 5,000 years of human culture, as expressed in philosophy, literature, science, religion and art from cultures around the world.
Most IDS core courses are team-taught, with two or three faculty members from different disciplines jointly responsible for the content of the course. For example, our core currently includes American Civilization taught by a historian and a literature professor; World Thought and Culture taught by a philosopher, a religion professor, and a political scientist; and Individual in Contemporary Society taught by a psychologist and an economist. This unique approach not only embodies interdisciplinarity, but provides a crucially important lesson for students: people with differing opinions and approaches can engage in dialogue that is mutually beneficial, even if no one is proven right or wrong. Indeed, important questions are productively addressed only through careful thought and constructive, respectful dialogue. These conversations across disciplines also foster creativity and flexible thinking—the real “skills” that college graduates need in an increasingly fast-paced and complex world.