L&S Curricular Connections

Excerpt from Dean Robert Holub’s Presentation for Undergraduate Colloquium (February 5, 2004)

As a liberal arts college, perhaps our greatest obligation to our students is to provide courses for them that will constitute a well-rounded and broad education. We do this through our breadth requirement. We recognize that one facet of a student’s education is to gain detailed knowledge in a single field of endeavor, but that acquaintance with the various ways in which human beings have examined the world around them and their own history is essential for future leaders of our communities, our state, and our nation.

The current seven-course breadth requirement was formulated in the early 1990s, and immediately thereafter departments were asked which of their courses could be used to satisfy individual requirements. We now have lists of courses from departments that may be used to fulfill the requirement, but since the early 1990s the College has neither encouraged development of new courses to satisfy the requirement, nor sought to distinguish especially worthy courses that would fulfill the spirit of the requirement. As a result, students have satisfied the individual requirements by enrolling in courses developed within a discipline and designed usually as an introduction to that discipline.

Although there is nothing wrong with these lists of courses, I do not believe that we are fulfilling our obligation towards students when we institute a requirement and do not undertake any curriculum development for courses that will satisfy the requirement. I am not entirely opposed to the lists of courses that satisfy breadth. These courses, offered by departments within the context of disciplinary majors, are adequate for satisfying the breadth requirement, even if they were developed with other goals in mind. We should recognize, however, that most students currently treat the breadth requirement as a nuisance or a hurdle, not as an opportunity for learning, and certainly not as the essence of their liberal arts education. There is clearly something wrong when the essence of a liberal arts education is regarded as something on a check-off list.

We can and should do better. I believe we should attract the best teachers in the College, and the best teachers across the campus, to contribute to courses that will be dedicated to providing students with breadth courses that truly merit that designation. I would like to develop a program of Teaching Excellence in the Liberal Arts that would be designed to provide the foundation of a liberal arts education. The courses I envision are broader, more encompassing, richer, and more interesting; they take topics that don’t necessarily fit in a departmental structure, topics that allow students an exposure, not just to a field of study, but to a type of knowledge.

Let me give a few examples of what I mean: It is surely possible to satisfy the Biological Sciences requirement with an introductory course in Biology. But might it not be more useful to a greater number of students to have the chance to take a course on environmental literacy, in which the scientific issues relating to current discussions on the environment are examined, discussed, and debated? A course on Aristotle or David Hume is fine for the philosophy and values requirement (I’m less certain about symbolic logic), but couldn’t we also offer a course that would thematize the ethical dilemmas that we face in the contemporary world, in business, government, politics, and even at the university? Political Science 1 or Sociology 1 may be fine introductions to their respective disciplines, but wouldn’t a comparative course in the many ways in which we acquire knowledge of our societies be more meaningful to students seeking a broad overview of this breadth area?

I believe this conception of the Letters and Science breadth courses constitutes the core values of a Berkeley education. The essence of a liberal arts education is to promote thinking about important problems and to enable rethinking of stale solutions. The breadth courses I would like to have our campus offer to undergraduates will provide faculty members the freedom to explore topics beyond their own narrow disciplines. And they will provide students with the kind of thought-provoking, broad, and exciting discussions that we owe to them as Berkeley graduates.