Becoming 'Culturally Literate' : UCSD's New Fifth College Plans to Entice Students by Offering a Different Perspective on Today's World

Times Staff Writer

The turn-of-the-century art of French Impressionist Paul Gaugin, with his sensuous paintings of women, reflects the strong influence of Polynesia among European intellectuals "discovering" the South Pacific at the time.

The migrations of early humans across the Indo-European land masses may have occurred, in part, because of changes that aggressive overhunting had caused to the environment.

The spread of AIDS from Africa to other continents during the past decade has parallels in the spread of diseases such as smallpox and syphilis between the Old and New worlds during the Middle Ages and the later Age of Discovery.

The common themes of cultural interplay between Europe, Africa, and Asia, of links between art, science and literature, run through these and many other events and trends of history.

Now, a group of professors at UC San Diego is attempting to bring together such elements of history--from the oral myths and cultivation practices of ancient man to the rise of mass culture and economic instability today--in an ambitious two-year course to anchor a new international curriculum at the prestigious university.

The course will form the curriculum of the new Fifth College at UCSD, which will accept its first class of 400 freshmen next fall as the latest campus addition to cope with a rapidly growing enrollment. As do all other colleges at UCSD, Fifth will have a specialized general education core, that of comparative study of Western and non-Western cultures. All students will take courses in that core while being able to choose any academic major in either the science or humanities offered campuswide.

The "Making of the Modern World" is considered so unusual within the U.S. college system today that the Ford Foundation has agreed to provide $151,000 to help fund its development. The professors drawing up the course are trying at once for two goals: to create a course that is academically solid to show how the past affects the present, and to create a visually exciting, fast-paced offering to stimulate students into treating it as more than an onerous undergraduate hurdle to overcome.

"The original planners for the college in 1985 hit early on the idea of having an international curriculum," said James K. Lyon, professor of German literature who was chosen earlier this year to serve as the first provost of Fifth College.

The broadly based curriculum now taking a final shape includes (in addition to the two-year introductory class) a year each of math/computer science and natural science; a year of a foreign language; a year of fine arts; and a year of study of the history, literature or culture of a particular world region.

Students will also be strongly encouraged, though not required, to spend a year abroad in some study program. For example, students majoring in engineering--among the most popular majors at UCSD--could be placed in summer internships offered in Japan, France and Germany.

The emphasis on the interdependence of cultures, and on learning about them not just through history but through art and literature and language, runs counter to strong arguments within the educational field today for emphasizing the roots of Western civilization. University of Chicago Prof. Alan Bloom is perhaps the best known of those academics advocating less non-Western cultural emphasis and more on the cultural foundation of today's Western democracies.

"It is correct that there is this tension in U.S. academic circles today," said John Dower, professor of Japanese history and chairman of the Fifth College planning committee for the survey class.

'Understand Other Cultures'

"We're saying that we believe it crucial to avoid ethnocentricity . . . that you cannot understand Western civilization and what it means until you understand other cultures and civilization, the way that cultures have been influenced by and set against other cultures . . . and to understand what we have done to other cultures as well."

Added Lyon: "For many California students, the center of the universe runs along a meridian extending from San Diego through Los Angeles to San Francisco. What is at stake here is an essential redefinition of what it means to be culturally literate and to be educated in our world today." Lyon asked whether a person can understand the Middle Ages without knowing of Islam and its influence on Europe, or can chart America's course today without knowing of ancient Japanese culture and its effect on that nation's contemporary economic actions.

"I am a strong advocate of our humanistic tradition and we certainly are not going to neglect it. But we need to learn it to compare to other cultures . . . how can you make the claim of being educated without knowing about the rest of the world?"

Dower, Lyon and another half-dozen UCSD professors across the academic spectrum have spent several months shaping the "Making of the Modern World" course.

'Smorgasbord Offering'

"The first concept was too much of a smorgasbord offering that was not focused enough," Dower said. "We want it clear that we are going to deal with things that are relevant to lives of students today.

"And at first, we were talking only of a one-year course. But you can't do a first-rate job in that time."

The first year will focus broadly on what the committee calls "traditions," including the transition of Paleolithic man from hunters to farmers, kings and emerging states, the great philosophies and religions from China, India, ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome, and the early Christian era and the Crusades where cultures clashed violently in many areas.

In the second year, the elements of "transition and transformation" will be followed with emphasis on European expansion and conquest, the industrial revolution, the rise of nation states, the rise of mass culture and the notions of irrationality and abstraction.

"We are not going to be exhaustive, this is not going to cover everything," Lyon said. Rather, students will be exposed to certain seminal events and trends that taken together give a global perspective to students and explain why the world is the way it is today.

"The elements are those that are vital, from beginning to end, and have a bearing on contemporary life," Lyon said. Following completion of the two-year course, the students will have a strong basis on which to choose their regional specialties, Dower said.

Fifth College planners are keenly aware of the intense competition at UCSD among students, a majority of whom major in the sciences, and in particular in biology as a prerequisite for medical school.

"We realize that the course has to be a 'grabber'," Lyon said, using as an example the way transmission of smallpox and the plague affected entire cultures and peoples.

"That should grab the attention of everyone," Lyon said. Dower added, "Any science student should be interested in the question of why science developed in the West . . . much of social science and the humanities has bearing on scientific interests."

The 18 instructors for the course will be carefully selected. While the UCSD faculty includes a great many stellar researchers, Lyon and Dower both said that many are not good undergraduate teachers and therefore would not fit the course vision.

"To a certain extent, we are all overspecialized today and we want people who try to be good generalists as well, and have a proven ability in communicating with undergraduates," Lyon said, adding that Fifth College in general will place more importance on teaching than the norm at most large American research universities.

The course will also feature films, maps, and other visual aids to make the material "come alive" for students. Dower already uses such items that he says bring "an immediacy" to the study of Japanese history.

Although a permanent Fifth College campus has not yet been built, plans call for an emphasis on international culture in the residence halls, with special meals and cultural programs and advisers selected from study-abroad programs. An "international house" will be located on the campus.

"I'm more than pleased so far that among the 20,000 applicants to UCSD for next year, (the same percentage) have checked 'Fifth College' as their choice of campus as have selected the (other) four," Lyon said. "And (although the) deadline for application has past, we still get 10 inquiries a week, from San Diego to Alaska."

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