I propose that we establish a Freshman Seminar in Western Civilization at Furman, one modeled on our existing Freshman Humanities Sequence and on the program at Colgate University described by Mary Ann Calo at our faculty retreat. My proposal takes promoting critical reflection to be one of our central educational aims and seeks to enhance our ability to pursue this aim. In what follows, I will discuss the content, organization, relationship to the rest of the curriculum, and rationale for this seminar under separate headings.
The Freshman Seminar would mirror our existing Humanities sequence in beginning roughly with the ancient Hebrews and covering important texts, topics, and movements in Western history through the twentieth century. We would need to establish a list of texts that would be covered in all sections of the seminar, as they do in the Colgate program. These texts would constitute roughly 60 to 70% of the syllabus for all sections of the course. Individual professors would choose the remaining texts based on their interests, expertise, and choice of emphasis.
Depending on our decision regarding the academic calendar, the Freshman Seminar would be either a two- or three-course sequence required of all freshmen. Individual sections of the course would be team-taught by two or more professors from different academic disciplines, presumably (but not necessarily) in the humanities. We would need to establish some kind of committee to determine the list of shared texts to be used by all sections of the course. The committee would vote for a list of texts to be used for a specified length of time, say for a period of two or three academic years. At the end of that period, the committee would reconsider the list of texts and modify it as members collectively see fit.
Along with the Freshman Seminar, I propose that we also establish an annual or biannual Summer Humanities Institute that would bring participating faculty together for a series of meetings and seminars to discuss issues that arise in teaching the course. The institute would provide a forum for participating faculty to share with one another their expertise regarding certain texts and their experiences of successful and unsuccessful ventures in the classroom.
Relationship to the Rest of the Curriculum
It seems clear that our decision to create a Freshman Seminar would not mandate any particular changes to our existing General Education Requirements (GERs) and would be compatible with many such changes. I take this to be a virtue of my proposal. Let me briefly mention a couple of ways the seminar might be incorporated into our curriculum.
One possibility would be for the Freshman Seminar to replace our existing History, Religion, and Literature requirement. Our students now have the option of taking the Humanities Sequence to satisfy this requirement; we might use the very similar Freshman Seminar in Western Civilization as the only (or perhaps the preferred) means of satisfying this requirement. Alternatively, we might take the Freshman Seminar in conjunction with one other course (e.g. Religion 11 or 12) to satisfy this requirement. Another possibility, independent of the two already mentioned, would be to design the seminar to be writing-intensive and have it “absorb” the English 11 requirement in addition to any other requirements we take it to satisfy.
The educational aim underlying the Freshman Seminar is to teach critical thinking and reflection. There are at least four features of the seminar that would promote this aim. First, the seminar would provide students with a more explicit understanding of the ideas, narratives, texts, and historical events that have played a key role in creating the world in which they live. This kind of self-understanding is crucial for critical thinking because such thinking always takes as its point of departure a set of existing beliefs, values, and practices that have become problematic and stand in need of reassessment. (I should add here that I don’t see how we could promote this kind of self-understanding among Furman students without ensuring that substantial attention is paid in the Freshman Seminar to the Bible and Christianity.)
Second, an important aspect of the seminar would be to stress the
diversity inherent in what we somewhat misleadingly refer to as
“Western civilization.” The seminar would provide students
with an introduction to the cultural, religious, and philosophical
diversity that has always been characteristic of what we loosely call
“the West.” Awareness of this diversity would promote
critical thinking by making students aware that contemporary beliefs
and social arrangements always sit amidst a sea of alternative
Third, the seminar would also convey the diversity in methods and approaches that characterize different academic disciplines. Since professors from different disciplines would teach the course, students would become aware that there are different ways to approach shared course materials. Moreover, since the assigned texts would presumably include works of literature, philosophy, science, and religion, students would encounter diverse forms of knowledge and expression in the texts themselves. Exposure to “diverse ways of knowing” would promote critical thinking by multiplying the resources that students can draw upon in order to address contemporary issues.
Fourth, at least a portion of the seminar would ideally be devoted to voices that are critical, marginal, or heretical in relation to historically dominant voices. The course could thus include texts by critics like Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Foucault, along with texts written by women, homosexuals, people of color, and members of other historically marginalized groups. The inclusion of such voices would promote critical thinking by calling students’ attention to the various ways in which they occupy positions of privilege and by encouraging them to reflect upon the burdens such privileges impose upon disadvantaged groups.
I am convinced that adopting a Freshman Seminar in Western Civilization at Furman would embody a very positive change. It would provide students and participating faculty with a shared frame of reference from which innumerable courses and conversations could branch off. It would promote a spirit of community and shared endeavor among participating faculty, who would be engaged in an ongoing conversation about the meaning of the liberal arts. And it would substantially advance our aim of promoting critical reflection among our students.