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At the University I attend, Portland State University, University studies is a program introduced in 1994 to replace and revamp the old general education requirements. Instead of letting students take a scattered group of general ed classes that may leave them without any general ideas what is going on, the University Studies program attempts to teach students a unified view of knowledge, as well as critical thinking.

OF course, I am sure that most e2 users are not personally affected by what is happening in the general education department of Oregon's commuter university, but similiar programs are, I have heard, becoming fashionable across the country. So I am just using the program as an example.

The program comes in three levels : Freshman inquiry, sophomore inquiry with an upper division cluster, followed by a senior capstone.

The Freshmen Inquiry is one course that students must enroll in for an entire year. These courses don't attempt to teach any particular subject, but instead attempt to apply the latest scholastic interdisciplinary methods to broadening the students mind to the state of the present world. The classes have names like Cyborg and Knowledge, Art and Power. These classes will amount to one third of the freshmens credits.

This is followed by a year of three different sophmore inquiry classes, each one attempting to give a broad outline of a subject, which this time actually involves academic content. Such sophmore inquiry classes involve such subject matter as Chicano Studies or Renaissance History. However, the sophmore inquiry class with the most sections is still Popular Culture.

After the sophmore inquiry paints with broad strokes, upper division cluster courses, in the 300s and 400s, fill in specific details. My experience with these courses so far is that they are quite good, and involve real academics.

This is followed by the Senior Capstone. I have yet to take part in this part of the program, but from the PSU website, it involves taking part in interdisciplinary teams to find solution to Portland's problemms, in a real world context.

What all of this adds up to, is, to quote the PSU webpage:

The ultimate goal of University Studies is to enable graduates to develop the attitudes and skills needed to pursue lifelong learning.

Which are certainly admirable goals, although whether the University Studies program accomplishes them is open for debate. For one thing, there has been quite a bit of criticism from the Right about whether or not these programs really are interested in encouraging critical thinking or whether they are meant to indoctrinate students with multiculturalism and liberalism. While the Right could be crying wolf on the extant of whether this is a planned course of indoctrination in secular humanism, I do think that anytime that an attempt is made to teach students critical thinking, the professor will attempt to teach the students to be critical of certain belief systems. True critical thinking is something people have to arrive on on their own.

The largest problem with the University Studies program is the assumption that lies behind it, that students don't have any idea what is going on in the world, and that this program is the way to open their eyes. It assumes that most students coming into college are teenagers whose sole exposure to life has been through watching MTV News. This is a fairly ludicrous assumption, especially at PSU, which has many freshmen who are coming in later in life after already having had succesful careers. Even for entering freshmen, I don't know if the idea that the average American teenager is a cultureless, banal moron is accurate. And if this, indeed, is true, is having them in class rooms learning about Popular Culture really the way to solve it?

Personally, by the time I entered college I already had a general picture of what the world was like. I entered college not so I could have more content dropped on me willy-nilly, but so that I could learn a set of specific skills in order to be able to learn the more profound nature of the world for myself.

I don't know exactly who put the University Studies program into place at PSU. Student reaction runs from lukewarm to contempt. I have talked to a number of teachers, who find having their talents funneled into trying to teach watered down conceptual ideas to freshmen a waste of time. I can only imagine that this program was instituted by some people fairly high up with a fairly great devotion to some theoretical ideas.

So, college administrators out there, reading e2: before instituting some wonderful new program to usher children into the world of lifelong learning, make sure you aren't just wasting their time.

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