By John Dreher
Professor of Philosophy
The following article, taken from the Fall 1995 edition of Lawrence Today, was written for the 50th anniversary of the Freshman Studies Program.
Freshmen in September 1993 had their first Freshman Studies meeting in their 15-student discussion groups, and assembled two days later to hear their first Freshman Studies lecture in Stansbury Hall. Here is part of what they heard in the introduction of the lecturer, the lecture, and the course.
In the third weekend of June in the year 2007, you will return to campus for your tenth reunion. If you are at all like the rest of your predecessors at LU, you will, at the reunion, talk happily to each other about all the wonderful stuff you did in Freshman Studies, back in 1993-94.
Imagine that. You are now beginning to do the work, perform the feats, sweat the sweat, and earn the triumphs which will provide the content of your exultant memories, at your tenth reunion.
Well, let's hope it's like that for them -- or most of them -- in 2007, and for you -- or most of you -- now and always.
While the words "Freshman Studies" form one name, that name does not name one thing. There is no one such thing as Freshman Studies. As some have put it: "There is no Form 'Freshmanstudiesness' [pace Plato]." Freshman Studies 1945 is unlike Freshman Studies 1995 is unlike Freshman Studies 1975; indeed, in 1975 Freshman Studies was in a state of suspended animation. But the fact that the program changes shows that it is a living and intelligent "organism." It adapts and adjusts to its intellectual and social environment at the same time that it is working to re-shape those very environments.
Students in Freshman Studies are not passive. (This is a descriptive statement. To some extent and on some occasions, it is optative.) Yes, they read texts, listen to music, and look at art. But they are not inert plates upon which external data impinge and leave some impressions. They are active, even aggressive, students of works. They ask: "Exactly what is going on here? What am I supposed to think or feel? Are the targeted thoughts or feelings justified? Has a claim been shown to stand on the merits, or am I being propagandized? What would a competent and hostile but fair-minded critic -- me maybe -- allege are the flaws in this work? Are they flaws?" These are the sorts of questions students direct to the texts. You may imagine (or recall) the questions students direct to each other, or the questions teachers direct to the students.
Students take Freshman Studies in their fall and winter terms. These two courses do not magically transform anyone into a skilled and independent thinker. (Even thirty-six courses at Lawrence fail to do that trick.) But they present the student with a variety of stimuli the responses to which are mind-building. Happily, many freshmen come to LU with strong intelligence and solid work habits, but even for them, using and therefore having a mind is an emerging process, not an antecedent reality. Their work in Freshman Studies accelerates and guides that process. Many good things can happen in and because of twenty-three discussion sessions and six lectures. "If there is anything that tells a young person that freshman year is not grade thirteen, it's Freshman Studies," President Richard Warch said. "Students have a chance to not only talk about texts, but to talk about ideas that have a bearing on the way we conduct our lives."
The guides in Freshman Studies are the discussion leaders and lecturers. Each fall nineteen or twenty instructors from approximately twelve different Lawrence departments serve as teachers. And each winter another nineteen or twenty people (two to four of whom had also taught Freshman Studies in the fall) from about a dozen different academic departments, join the program. The program is staffed by people who have their home-bases in the various specialized academic disciplines, who are committed to the liberal arts, and who volunteer to teach in Freshman Studies. For the past few years, there have been more volunteers than were needed.
One may wonder whether a biologist, for example, could responsibly guide college students in their work on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example. The quick answer to the question whether it could be done is that it has been done. At the May 1994 Honors Convocation the "Freshman Studies Outstanding Teaching Award" was shared by Professor Elizabeth De Stasio, a biologist who volunteered to teach Conrad, Voltaire, and Picasso (as well as Darwin), and the English department's Professor Tim Spurgin, who volunteered to teach Plato, Mozart, and Locke (as well as Shakespeare and Austen).
The fact is that Lawrence hires faculty who are good in their specialties and related disciplines, and can engage in other responsible inquiries without turning into dilettantes. (Again, the optative mood arises.) The Freshman Studies staff typically meets for a three-day seminar at the start of the academic year and for luncheon discussions during the teaching term. We talk shop in those formal sessions and in informal gatherings. We argue with and learn from each other, and in so doing we grow in our own several disciplines, as well as become more effective participants in the activities called "Freshman Studies."
President Nathan Pusey launched Freshman Studies in 1945. It is now at its golden anniversary, and continues to grow and change. But a constant theme runs through the retrospective testimony of decades of LU graduates. Now at a "safe" distance from the course (or is it that they now speak with the wisdom of experience?) they say that the work in the course opened eyes, made one painfully aware of brain cells that had heretofore been undisturbed, was completely different than the data-assimilation done in high school, and planted seeds that have been blooming over the years.
In May 1995 I received a postcard from David Trimble, '82. He was in Paris, and his conversation with an artist friend turned into a neat argument over a point made in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Dave gleefully closed the report with: "You can't escape Freshman Studies!" Who would want to? (Maybe a few freshmen would. Give them a few years.)
Professor John Dreher, the Lee Claflin-Roberts S. Ingraham Professor of Philosophy, joined the Lawrence faculty in 1963. He has taught Freshman Studies over 30 times and has served as director of the program in 1982, 1986, 1993, and 1994.