California dreams of cluster courses

March 14, 1997

CALIFORNIANS are rebelling at the university tradition of obliging students to take courses outside their chosen major in the name of a broad education.

The 24,000 undergraduates at University of California at Los Angeles, for example, choose from a smorgasbord of 450 courses. Everything from an introduction to chemistry to subjects like Aids and society can qualify as general education and count for up to 25 per cent of a degree.

A UCLA committee of staff and students is proposing a radical overhaul. It is touting a proposal that first-year students choose one of about ten sets of "cluster" courses taught by teachers from different disciplines. Suggested subjects include "the meaning and nature of democracy", taught by faculty from the arts, humanities, social sciences and law.

The committee is inviting suggestions for further "clusters". But others already on the table range from immigration, taught from the perspectives of literature, anthropology, law and history, to "theatre as a projection of political power", taught by the theatre arts, history, political science, classics and language departments.

The approach draws heavily on interdisciplinary studies, enjoying growing popularity at US universities. It is unlikely to satisfy those who say that colleges are sacrificing rigorous study for fads.

Bradford Wilson, director of the conservative National Association of Scholars complained that inter-disciplinary courses were non-disciplinary. They are an excuse for taking an English text and subjecting it to trendy race, class and gender analysis, he said.

Not so, says UCLA, 31 of whose departments are ranked in the top 20 in the country.

In some US universities, core curriculums have proved such a headache that they have been dropped altogether. UCLA aims to use the new system to encourage "academic socialisation" to turn a sprawling university into an "intellectual community".

The campus now has 90 per cent of first-years in residence halls. "But it's a big place, it can be very alienating for students, many of whom come from small towns," said Ed Berenson, chair of the general education programme.

Instead of letting them get into cliques governed by race, religion, or home town, UCLA aims to use the "clusters" to mix academic and social life. Some classes will be in the residence halls, with counsellors and outings used to encourage students to mingle their ideas.

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