By Casey S. Elliott
Whether gathering for an evening of watching a modern version of "Dante's Inferno" or discussing Plato's "Republic" over breakfast, a group of Ohio University freshmen are learning how to answer life's philosophical questions through a new program in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The Scholars Program, a pilot program, provides high-achieving freshmen a curriculum that challenges their critical thinking abilities by answering philosophical questions through difficult reading and writing assignments. Eligible students are sent information about the program and are chosen by deans and faculty through an application process.
Program designers felt the program was necessary to retain higher-achieving students.
"We felt a lot of students coming in to the college were intellectually capable of going through a more challenging experience," said Thomas Scanlan, associate dean for student and curricular affairs who took part in initial discussions to develop the program. "This program is designed to give them that challenge."
Candidates for the program must have a minimum ACT reading comprehension score of 25 and a minimum composite ACT score of 25. Completing all three quarters of the program satisfies an undergraduate's Tier 1 writing requirement and the Tier 2 humanities and social sciences requirements.
This year, 28 students signed up for the pilot program, and organizers hope to have 40 students next year.
Students in the program meet for an hour Monday through Friday during the year-long program, with a lecture on Monday and the rest of the time focused on discussion, critique and writing projects related to that lecture. Six faculty members assist students and bring them together with faculty experts, who sometimes conduct the lecture for that week.
Each quarter focuses on different periods of world history -- the ancient world, the medieval world and the modern world. "What is love? and "What does it mean to be human?" are questions examined by the students who pull information from challenging reading and writing assignments to attempt to answer those questions.
"The reason you go to college as an undergraduate is to learn methodologies," said Classics and World Religions Chair Thomas Carpenter, one of the creators of the program. "We're teaching these kids different methodologies to answer questions. The questions aren't important -- it's how you answer them that is."
The program evolved out of discussion over several years between faculty and deans on how to deliver a more-challenging curriculum, Carpenter said. Organizers looked at other successful programs and adapted those approaches to meet the needs of students at Ohio University.
Associate Professor of English Josie Bloomfield, who took part in the brainstorming for the program, said the structure provides both a challenge and guides future study habits. Bloomfield added that working with challenging texts and having stimulating discussion to answer broad questions provides critical thinking tools that carry students through their college years and the rest of their lives.
After Ohio University switches to a semester curriculum, Scholars Program organizers hope to expand the program to a two-year one, adding a focus on natural sciences in the second year, Scanlan said.
While organizers have made it possible for students to all live in the same residence hall while they take the course, it is not a requirement. Most participants live in Bush Hall or commute to campus. Carpenter said student feedback indicates living in the same hall is advantageous for discussion and learning purposes, building strong bonds between students that last their entire college career.
Student comments indicate the rigor of the program is one of its strong points.
"The discussions we have can be intimidating," said Nathan Parsons, a member of the program. "It's like a campfire-style chat over deep philosophical points. The professors treat us as scholars, and when we come up with something may have never thought of, they want to learn from us, as we learn from them."
Fellow student Holly Ningard said the program was "more than she expected" and it has influenced her future.
"I was never interested in philosophy before having these classes," she said, noting she is now a dual major in criminology and philosophy.
The camaraderie developed between the students and the faculty members, along with the rigor of the program, also is a strong draw for participants.
Though a commuter, student Auldyn Matthews has found an added benefit in the program -- its ability to connect her to people on campus.
"I don't always feel a connection with the campus," she said. "With this program I get to spend time with the people here and feel like a part of the group."