Mosaic provides necessary variety

The often-criticized curricula of Mosaic courses provide a valuable experience for students.

Jason Pepper

Jason PepperExplaining the Intellectual Heritage program to parents and friends constantly forces Temple students to address some questions. What exactly is the course? Why is it so different from everything else that Temple requires?

Mosaic courses are literature classes, but the curriculum seems to be drawn out of a hat for most of them. For many students, their first experience with Mosaic starts before the semester even begins, when the students are shopping for their textbooks. Using the Barnes & Noble website, students can check what textbooks their professors require for classes. It’s usually pretty straightforward, but the required Mosaic courses break the pattern.

Immediately, users are greeted with the enigmatic message “wait for class.” After that, a massive list of textbooks is listed: 32 books for Mosaic I and 29 books for Mosaic II. These books are fairly cheap, but buying them all would still total in the hundreds of dollars. Fortunately, waiting for class will reveal that students won’t need most books on that list – but the books their professor picks seem to be completely at random.

Sure, there’s some consistency. Most Mosaic I classes are required to read “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and Freud’s “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,” but the other books required can range from the Chinese philosophy book “Daodejing of Laozi” to Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash.” A thorough look at the book list will reveal even stranger combinations – Greek epics, texts on political discourse, studies on science and religion, books of poems and even Sophocles’ Theban Plays.

According to Temple’s course guide, Mosaic is “theme-based course” during which “students investigate the nature of the individual in human society through the examination of psychological, social and political texts in dialogue with examples from art and literature.” That’s about the extent of the course description.

Why is this course mandatory for all students? A required course is to ensure that all students at a university come out with at least some base level education that is identical to everyone else’s. Everyone is required to learn a certain level of mathematics and science. Mosaic is required, but it seems that very few students come out of the classes with the same experience.

“It’s weird,” said Megan Anderson, a sophomore art student. “There’s just this random array of books, and it feels like there’s no real directions.”

According to Joseph Schwartz, the director of the IH program, there is an ideal experience.

“We like to think that what is required is that students read challenging texts in their entirety,” he said.

He added that Mosaic is more about a common experience of analyzing the human condition rather than a common experience of learning a singular subject.

Douglas Greenfield, the associate director of IH, supports this. “What is required is an exploration of our intellectual heritage,” he said.

That is, possibly, the beauty of the Mosaic courses. Though every student must take them, not every student comes out with the exact same experience. It’s a class designed to confront students with the human condition. Students read books about a variety of topics and are forced to alter the way they think about the world because of it. It’s education in the broadest and most liberal sense – providing students with a variety of worldviews, discussing the support and problems with each view, and then letting students sort out among themselves what they want to believe.

Most Mosaic courses are discussion-based rather than lecture-based, so professors frame ideas and students interpret them. Perhaps Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” will alter a student’s views on the global economic system, or maybe Dawkin’s “River Out of Eden” will spark a desire to learn about science and evolution.

These courses present students with books that they may never have encountered in their lives, even though these books are partly responsible for shaping the world as it is today.

“[These works] are kind of like the DNA of our civilization,” Greenfield said.

Temple’s job of creating a solid baseline education includes educating students using ideas and concepts that have created the modern world, and it’s good that students get a chance to discuss and think about these ideas.

The lack of consistency just drives this point home even more – professors have relative freedom to present ideas to students, so students all have to confront a variety of views from people as well as in the texts. This experience extends across the entire school. If there was no Intellectual Heritage program, then “someone in Tyler couldn’t read as richly as someone in liberal arts,” Schwartz said.

Though it may not be a popular class, it’s reassuring to see that Temple seems to have a solid grasp on the nuances of education. It’s not just about rote memorization or problem-solving, it’s also about learning and exploring new ideas about the world.

Jason Pepper and on twitter @pepperjasona

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