Boot Camp for Thinkers

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Marc Katz urges students to be intellectually daring: “Ask the big questions. Consider everything on the table. Bite off more than you think you can. Surprise me.”

Katz takes his own advice. As associate professor of German who has been at Scripps since 1994, Katz has the additional, demanding job of convener of the Core, the three-semester series of courses required of every first-year Scripps student. He serves as a referee of sorts to the Core faculty—someone who helps keep them focused on the woods, not the trees.

According to Katz, Scripps faculty teach in the Core not because they have to, but because they want to. “Core literally is the core of teaching at Scripps.”

What distinguishes the Scripps Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities from other Core programs throughout the nation is what Katz calls its “cosmopolitanism.”To provide this worldwide scope, Core I draws upon 13 faculty members from different academic disciplines to lecture during the first semester, with each faculty member bringing her or his own perspective into the arena of general discussion; in addition, small sections meet weekly.This approach has several advantages for students, explains Katz. It allows them to see how disciplines intersect and inform one another. For example, having some brush with art history will enliven economics, and conversely, an economic perspective will enhance art history. It also allows students to sample a broad spectrum of disciplines before deciding on a major.

But it’s hard. Very hard. Ask a first-year about the Core, and she is likely to let out a groan. Organized around the broad themes of “Culture, Representation, and Knowledge,”Core I plunges first-year students into many of the major intellectual debates and issues that define modernity.The reading requirements are intense, and students often find the texts difficult, with the connections vague or even invisible at first.

“Students feel a bit lost the first semester,” says Katz. “It is like an adventure: it makes the most sense at the end. A journey becomes comprehensible and useful when you turn around and look where you’ve been.That’s the way real learning takes place: in the rear-view mirror.” “Being lost can be a thrill, too,” he continues. “I call this ‘creative disorientation.’ You’ll eventually know the territory, but only after you lose your way for a time.”

Katz also refers to the Core experience as “intellectual boot camp.” But when the students complete it, he says, they can out-talk, out-think, and out-write other students at The Claremont Colleges.A Pomona professor, impressed with the performance of Scripps women in his class once asked Katz,”What in the world are you doing to those students over there?”

“What we’re doing is jump-starting our students’ ability to think critically,” says Katz.

In a world dominated by opinions, primarily in the media, the Core deals with ideas. Katz talks about ideas as living things; mere opinions, which are often based on clichés, are more like static blocks of wood. He believes these ideas can—and should—lead to a lack of absolute certitude. “Students have to be comfortable with ambiguity and, at the same time, think coherently and consequentially.”

One of Katz’s goals is to provide a safe environment for ideas and for women to “find their voice.”While that phrase itself is often a cliché, Katz explains that Scripps women find their voice, not just in their women-only Core classes, but in the context of a coed environment. First, they test their ideas in the Core and then apply them in classes with other Claremont Colleges students. “Scripps women will eat up the guys when it comes to intellectual give-and-take,” says Katz. “Guys will think they have the podium, but will find themselves successfully challenged by the women.”

Because the Core is so often mentioned as the heart of a Scripps education, alumnae occasionally question its rigor and focus—particularly those who can remember when the Core was a three-year experience. Katz notes that sometimes less can indeed be more.”A three-semester program enables us to focus and intensify the experience,” he says. It was also necessary to change the course’s length, he added, because of the increased necessity for students to specialize early in their academic careers in order to prepare for graduate school or the workforce.

Yet the comparisons between the “old” Core and the present one persist.Those who have concerns about the Core can take comfort in the fact that, like ideas and a Scripps woman, Core has a life of its own.

“We need to be anticipatory,” says Katz, “because students come to us knowing different things than they did 10 years ago.We need to stay one step ahead of them.”

So don’t expect the Core to stand still. It is a perpetual work in progress.