A Remarkable Experience

by Andrew Aisenburg

Some students call it the toughest learning experience they’ve ever had. Most admit it lays the foundation for every subsequent college course. Professors say it creates connections among their colleagues that they wouldn’t make on their own. Alumnae never forget it. Why is Scripps’ Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities so remarkable? We asked Andrew Aisenberg, convener of the Core and associate professor of history, to explain:

The Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, Scripps’ signature three-semester sequence required of all incoming students, is an enterprise not easy to accomplish. It requires a critical mass of faculty members, open to teaching in a curriculum that sometimes exceeds their specific expertise and willing to take time away from teaching in a disciplinary setting. It also requires students who expect more from education than the acquisition of skills and “training” in a single disciplinary perspective. If the experiences of the majority of students and faculty currently involved in the Core Curriculum can be taken as an adequate basis for evaluation, the Scripps general education requirement is a success and an enterprise worth keeping. Core is what makes Scripps distinctive.

The first semester of the Core sequence is a combined lecture and discussion survey course, team-taught by 12 or 13 faculty members, that aims at understanding the potentials and problems of our contemporary (shared) values by tracing their origin and development back to the 18th-century Enlightenment. Core II takes the form of interdisciplinary lecture and discussion courses, team taught by two professors from different departments but with overlapping interests, that foster a more in-depth analysis of themes approached in Core I. Core III, the capstone of the curriculum, affords the opportunity of a more intensive investigation of these same themes, facilitated by discussion and project-based seminars.

The ethos of the Core Curriculum is grounded in the values of integrated and humanistic education that guided the inception of Scripps College more than 80 years ago. At the same time, the curriculum reflects important changes in the goals and techniques of education that have emerged since the school’s founding. The required humanities curriculum, in recognition of the ever-growing importance of specialized and skills-oriented learning, has been reduced from half of the Scripps student’s total courses to a three-course requirement. The definition of the disciplines included in “humanities” has been expanded to the sciences and social sciences. Finally, the Core actively encourages students not to take for granted the values and ideas that comprise their humanistic tradition and world view, both by extending an analysis of “the human” beyond the conventional confines of Europe and America and by encouraging students to investigate the serious exclusions from the enjoyment of humanism witnessed in the operations of class, gender, and race.

No doubt, these changes have enriched the general education requirement at Scripps. More important, they have done so without sacrificing what has always made this requirement at Scripps unique. The fact that Scripps retains a general education requirement just at the moment when other schools are dismantling them or replacing them with generic first-year seminars attests to the unique status of the Core Curriculum. These changes at other schools can be explained by the ever-increasing encroachment of disciplinary specialization and skills-based learning on the vision of broad and innovative learning and writing.

The Scripps curriculum is committed to disciplinary learning, but also recognizes that education in the disciplines is nourished by students’ early engagement with ideas and conversations that cut across disciplines and that engage a multiplicity of (sometimes divergent) perspectives. The value of this commitment to a broad and interdisciplinary general education experience is made evident in what are constantly invoked as two of Core’s most successful attributes: the participation of first-year students and first-semester sophomores in a common enterprise, and the active, committed cooperation of faculty from a variety of disciplines in the fashioning of an integrated curriculum.


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