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Consider the classics

It started with a wager. Well, a boast and a wager.

It was 1869 and Charles Eliot was riding in as the young knight in shining armor. His damsel in distress: a faltering system of higher education, caught between a weakness for archaic fascinations and an Industrial Age demand for graduates with vocational training. At the core of the struggle was Harvard University. When Eliot took the reins as Harvard's youngest president ever, he began to institute a new brand of education, one that trained students to tackle philosophical and practical challenges. Eliot's vision rejected the one-track programs endorsed by new schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Yale University's Sheffield Science School.

Eliot became known for his emphasis on liberal arts as a means for understanding real-life situations. He took his philosophy to the point of proclaiming that a comprehensive liberal arts education could be achieved through a simple 15 minutes of reading a day-assuming one was reading the right books. The comment did not go unnoticed. At the behest of publisher P.F. Collier & Son, Eliot and English Professor William Nielson spent the next year compiling a 51-volume collection of the most significant pieces of literary history. The collection came to be known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf (it's more famous today as the Harvard Classics) and became a symbol of high-brow academia.

The Five Foot Shelf isn't used in many classrooms anymore, but the debate that produced it, over the purpose of higher education and the role of the university, is still very much alive today. Pedagogical debates continue to rage between universities hoping to preserve the teaching of the canon and those who hope to pave new paths for the future of education. Duke stands somewhere in the middle of that debate. With a history of general-education requirements meant to emphasize the importance of cross-departmental exposure, the University's current curriculum aims to balance structure with a certain degree of student freedom.

But intent is rarely everything. As the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences approaches the 10-year anniversary of Curriculum 2000-the matrix of "areas of knowledge," "modes of inquiry," "focused inquiries" and "competencies" that riddles your ACES Web page-the student verdict is still out on how effective the system really is.

Produced by a committee chaired by Provost Peter Lange in 1997, Curriculum 2000 was actually revolutionary for its time, says Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki. It proposed a way of thinking about education that was outside the box of historical subject divisions.

"Our proposal recognizes explicitly that courses can and do teach more than a specific substantive topic," the committee's report, approved in January 1999, reads.

In theory, it's the perfect mix-students have the freedom to choose courses that suit their interests while still observing occasional pilgrimages out of their fields of choice. The problem, however, is in the execution. Forced to take courses in order to fulfill requirements, intellectual curiosity is often reduced to a chore, or as Nowicki says, a "giant game of Bingo."

The alternatives are many, with universities like St. John's, the University of Chicago and Columbia University representing one end of the spectrum and Brown University, Amherst University and Smith College the other.

The former is not so far removed from the prescription of Dr. Eliot. St. John's remains one of the few universities that has continued to function with a great books curriculum as rigorous as Eliot's, with a massive reading list that spans more than 100 writers and thinkers across a four-year program. A "who's who" of Western thought, the list is by no means restrictive in its genre offerings, showcasing everyone from Euclid to Bacon, Kant to Twain.

Although not necessarily attractive to all students, the school's site touts the program as a way to reflect on the "problems that human beings have to face today and at all times."

Such programs take heat for a restrictive, Western-centric view of the canon.

"It gives us a common point of reference," Nowicki says. "[But] we want to train students not in a canon, but in a way of thinking."

If St. John's offers a taste of history, the latter group of schools hopes to represent a future in which education is an experiment that belongs to the student-. Other than pursuing majors, Brown students have little in the way of requirements. The university has come to be recognized by the trademark quote of former president Francis Wayland. In 1850, he wrote: "The various courses should be so arranged that, insofar as practicable, every student might study what he chose, all that he chose and nothing but what he chose."

In a 2006 study conducted by the Teagle Foundation and led by Brown, administrators found that "the experience of 'open curriculum' campuses is that offering students such freedom creates a culture of learning in which students display unusual motivation, innovation and self-direction."

The study went on to conclude that, "this is not a wager that every institution will want to take, but the experience... at the schools that have participated in this project has been that it is a risk worth taking."

There is a catch: advising. Each of the programs included in the Teagle report emphasize the need for "effective, engaged" advising. In a Jan. 8, 2006, article, The New York Times suggested that a lack of a strong advising network at Harvard may have made the school's attempt at a Brownian curriculum later in Eliot's term as president a failure.

Where does Duke go from here? Both Nowicki and Lange seem certain that progress for the University will be measured not in its ability to imitate the philosophies of other universities, but rather in its success in keeping the door open for changes to the current system. A great books curriculum seems out of the question, but not much else is-from a revamped advising system to a curriculum that gives students a common learning experience.

Though, if you're interested, the going price for the Five Foot Shelf is $200 on eBay.

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