Shaking up the academic core

Mixing disciplines has brought new energy to the humanities at Lasell College

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

I stumbled across “Good Will Hunting” on TV not long ago, watched it for nostalgia’s sake, and emerged with a couple of questions. One: Who ever believed Robin Williams could come from Southie? And two: How joyless does college look in this movie? The egotistical professors. The smarty-pants students who spout Marxist theories in bars but can’t come up with a decent comeback to “How do you like them apples?”

And poor Minnie Driver, struggling with her chemistry homework, wishing she could be like her genius boyfriend, who never went to college but knows all the answers anyway. The Harvard Square bar scene looked like fun; the life of the mind, not so much.

I imagine it’s even worse today, when college is increasingly seen as a means to an end, a series of obligations on the way to a degree. The Obama administration wants to create a college ranking system based on tuition cost, debt load, and job placement: a utilitarian cost-benefit list that doesn’t have much to do with inspiration. These days, “education isn’t framed and designed in a way that students crave it,” said Jim Ostrow, the vice president for academic affairs at Lasell College in Newton.


Then he described how Lasell is trying to change that.

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Lasell is one of those small private schools that needs to prove its value: Most of its 1,650 undergraduates have some form of financial aid, many are the first in their families to go to college, and many didn’t spend their high school years deeply excited about academic pursuits. Lasell has humanities programs but also plenty of practical tracks, such as athletic training and fashion design; the idea that colleges shouldn’t care about workforce training, Ostrow says, is “not only antiquated, it’s ridiculous.”

So how do you inject some general love of learning into those four practical years?

Maybe you shake up the core.

I met with Ostrow and a group of Lasell professors last month at the invitation of history professor Dennis Frey. I had written a column about rethinking the humanities, and Frey, who chaired a faculty task force on the core curriculum, wanted to show me what Lasell was doing.


The college used to have the standard type of core, which required students to sample different fields: three credits of history, three credits of science, and so on. It sounded good, but students didn’t get much out of it. They’d check off the necessary boxes, then move on.

So the faculty started from scratch — canned the checklist and came up with a list of goals and outcomes instead.

First, they identified skills all students should have when they graduate: reading, writing, expressing themselves confidently, working with others. They identified ways that students should learn to think: how to apply the scientific method to problem solving, how to analyze human relations through the lens of history, how to make ethical decisions.

Then they tried to turn those ideas into courses. This part is evolving — change at a college comes slowly — but it often has to do with mixing disciplines. Last year, the school tested a new sophomore seminar, led by an environmental scientist and a social psychologist. The class chose a project: Coming up with ways to reduce the college’s carbon footprint. They divided into teams, pitted scientific fact against human behavior, and came up with concrete suggestions, which they presented to the administration. (One rejected proposal: Shutting down the school on Fridays, to reduce all that exhaust from the faculty driving in.) After the class was done, one group of students drew up plans to redesign the college’s parking lots — just because they were excited about doing it.

Upcoming seminars will bring together a fashion designer and an environmental studies professor, to talk about sustainability in fashion; a criminal justice professor and an historian, to discuss child labor and child sex trafficking; a scientist and a social scientist, to explore links between aging and the environment. These classes will be project-based, collaborative, rooted in real-world problems — a model for the rest of the curriculum, and for the many other midtier schools that want to make academics feel exciting, to add more real-world value to that coveted degree.


It almost makes me wish I could go back to college.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.