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Interview: Bert Cohler

An alumnus of and professor in the College discusses the impact of curricular change--and curricular tradition

Bert Cohler, AB'61, the William Rainey Harper professor in the College, serves on the College Council, the ruling body for the College on all matters of curriculum and instruction. As spokesperson of the Committee of the College Council, Cohler functions as the "voice of the faculty." Here, Cohler-who has taught the Common Core sequence Self, Culture, and Society for 25 years-discusses changes in the undergraduate curriculum, approved by the Council in March ("Chicago Journal," April/98) and scheduled to go into effect in autumn 1999:

When you talk with alumni about the changes in the undergraduate curriculum, what do you hear?

Alumni are worried that we've "dumbed down" the College; that we've moved away from the tradition of general education; that we've sold our birthright; and that it's not the College they remember.

My colleague Don Levine, who's also an alumnus of our College [AB'50, AM'54,PhD'57], once said to me, "Everybody remembers with fondness the curriculum they had." When talking with alumni, I try to explain that we're very much true to that same curriculum, in terms of our traditions: in our focus on careful reading of texts and on writing, on analytic thinking.

The philosophy of general education has not changed, nor the belief in general education, but the content is going to change over time-as befits larger changes in the real world. For example, in 1957, when I came to the College, we didn't worry about cloning or the ethical issues therein. That's changed.

Alumni often ask, "Are today's undergraduates different?" I've been chair of the College faculty admissions committee for some years, and I can say with great assurance that the quality of Chicago undergraduates has not changed. They may dress differently, but the students of today are as passionately committed to learning as when I was an undergraduate. In my four years as a resident head in Linn House, from 1990 to 1994, students would sit around my apartment and argue with great passion whether Thucydides was a better historian than Herodotus. As long as our students are worrying about those issues, I don't worry about changes in the College.

How does the new curriculum compare with the College curriculum as you knew it?

The College I was a part of was a much less arduous and difficult college than the one of the present day because the readings had been selected in a way consonant with students many of whom were equivalent to students in the third or fourth year of high school. In 1957, the curriculum was the three-year series of three-course sequences in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, with two yearlong capstone courses-the History of Western Civilization and Organization, Methods, and Principles of Knowledge, called OMP.

There was already some rumbling that the old College was being watered down, in the sense that there were now departmental degrees along with College degrees. Over the postwar period, the academic disciplines became ever more professional, and faculty began identifying as much with their academic discipline as with the University of which they were a part. It became more and more difficult to get faculty willing to teach general-education courses. There was a tug of war between the expectations of the disciplines and the expectations of general education.

In the past, how did the College and the University deal with the tug of war between disciplines and general education?

Since 1892, faculty at Chicago have been recruited with the understanding that they would have a reduced teaching load and be free to carry out their own work. There has always been a tension between faculty understanding that at Chicago one has greater freedom than one has at other universities-it's the ideology of the University-and the demands for undergraduate teaching.

I don't know of a faculty in the country as passionately committed to undergraduate education as Chicago is. We're not always of one mind, but we all agree it's important. We think there's an advantage in coming to a liberal-arts college in a great university: One can have the best of both worlds.

The faculty is going to have to consider the priorities at a changing time-a time when the professoriate is under considerable pressure, when the public doesn't understand exactly what we do. We want to ensure that professors are still passionately in love with their own writing, their own research, because at Chicago what motivates us is our zeal for what we do in our scholarly work. Without at all compromising that, the faculty has got to own its undergraduate curriculum.

Over the tumultuous period of 1965-67, the decision was made by [then] President Levi and the faculty to reduce the scope of the undergraduate general-education program and to eliminate a separate College faculty. In other words, the College faculty became a faculty of the University, with responsibility for instruction shared across departments.

The advantage, of course, was that the College was brought much more closely into alignment with the interests of the departments in graduate education. The disadvantage was that we lost our identity as a College and, to some extent, we lost the opportunity to make appointments of some significant scholars whose commitment was principally to general education rather than their academic specialties.

From 1967 to 1984, we tried a program with a reduced general-education component and an increased departmental focus, although lacking departmental-level introductory courses. Students were expected to move directly from the College's general-education courses into rather sophisticated course offerings. During this period we moved toward a series of course reading lists in our general-education courses-still thematically organized, still involving significant texts in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences-but also focusing much more on contemporary scholarship than was reflected in the traditional Chicago syllabi.

In 1984, under Don Levine's deanship, there was a reexamination of the Levi curriculum (Project 84) and a move toward increased focus on language and civilization, and other-than-text courses-art, music, and theater. Then, in 1992-93, under John Boyer's leadership, we began to reconsider Project 84.

Project 84 had created a curriculum that was not teachable. There were simply too many demands on faculty, given a faculty that is not increasing in size and an even larger College, to staff those courses. And to use graduate students as teachers in large numbers is just against the Chicago tradition.

What would you term the faculty's primary concern in fashioning the revised undergraduate curriculum?

We've had to make some judicious choices about a curriculum for which faculty feel enthusiasm and which students find engrossing and useful in their own intellectual development. As long as we keep our eyes on that tension, we're in good shape.

The curriculum we've created maintains the focus of general education in terms of learning how to read critically and analytically and how to write, while allowing students somewhat more latitude to take the kinds of elective courses which they seek.

What the College Council did in voting in the new curriculum was to build a structure with the understanding that the faculty of the collegiate divisions in the physical and natural sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences, would undertake careful review and come up with exciting new courses.

The College has got to be organic. It can't be a fossil of the past. But it must maintain a focus on learning careful reading and criticism and writing within a discussion context in which, in my mind, the fair question to ask of the instructor, and for the instructor to ask of the students, is, "Where in the text do you see that?"

It's the focus on what we do and the way we do it that makes us distinctive.

Do you think the quality of the College curriculum will be affected by the planned increase in the number of undergraduate students?

As a faculty member, my concern is much less with the numbers than with the quality of the students. We have to find another 700 students of the sort we want to teach.

Our students have enormous intellectual intensity. They love learning, and they love life. I have students on the baseball team and the football team and swimmers, and I have students in the theater, and I have students volunteering in political-action groups of both the right and the left. This has never been a place where one just studies.

With all of these resources in extracurricular life, there is intellectual intensity, but there is also a richness of living. It's precisely the tension between text-based courses and urban opportunities-including the new internships that have been created-that permits students to put together a curriculum of unusual richness and flexibility. Is this the Utopian curriculum?

No, but it's the best undergraduate general-education curriculum among the American research universities. The curriculum we've approved is meant to maintain that standard.

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