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Seeking a Good Society at University of the Pacific
"What is a good society?" This question provides focus for general education at University of the Pacific, a private comprehensive university whose main campus is located in the ethnically diverse city of Stockton, California. Pacific's general education program probes the question through three required Pacific Seminars (PACS) that serve as bookends to students' undergraduate experiences. Students enroll in the writing-intensive, discussion-oriented PACS 1 and 2 sequence during their first year and take PACS 3, a culminating seminar on ethics, during their senior year. Together, these seminars provide context for students' learning at Pacific and for their future participation in the world at large.
Introducing Big Questions
The seminars begin with PACS 1, a shared intellectual experience with a uniform syllabus and common course reader that introduces all first-year students to the question, "What is a good society?" Based on intellectual and moral development theories, the faculty-edited course anthology engages students in the topic through a progressive exploration that moves from local to universal levels. Chapters focus on five themes: the self and self-reflection, family and interpersonal relationships, the institutions of civil society, citizenship and the state, and the environment. The course's principal goals are to develop greater awareness of and critical thinking about significant social and political issues, both national and global, and to promote social and political engagement. The course accomplishes this through extensive writing and close reading assignments, as well as through class discussions.
One of PACS 1's primary goals is to encourage students to develop perspective-taking on and empathy for many forms of difference (such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religious diversity, nationality, and species). The course often applies this perspective-taking to examine whether the United States is living up to the ideals of liberty and equality promulgated in its founding documents. Students read about and discuss a wide range of related topics, including the cultural and political forces that shape personal identity, the effects of internalizing racial stereotypes, perceptions of those with disabilities, nontraditional forms of family and the history of marriage (which we relate to a discussion of California's Proposition 8), cultural differences in care for children and the elderly, religious pluralism in America, the roles of race and class in public education funding, the role of government in the economy, cosmopolitanism and nationalism, the treatment of nonhuman beings, and environmental racism. While the course's central goal is to encourage empathetic and critical perspective-taking across difference, readings on the decline of civic engagement (coupled with targeted efforts by the civic engagement office in the College of Arts and Sciences) encourage students to get involved in their communities. Thus students have volunteered in such activities as working at the polls in the November elections.
Exploring Greater Depths
During their second semester, students enroll in a PACS 2 seminar, chosen from over forty different topical courses that examine one or more of PACS 1's five themes in greater depth. Every school and virtually every department in the College of Arts and Sciences offers these seminars. The signature assignment in all PACS 2 sections is a research project, and many sections also have experiential learning components.
Diversity and civic engagement remain common themes in PACS 2's provocatively titled seminars. The seminars explore topics like the social and political forces that shape income inequality (You've Got Class), the social creation of gender roles (Cover Girls and Guitar Heroes), mass media representations of different identity groups (Media and Pop Culture Critique), the role of religion in public life (The Religious Footprint), economic problems and solutions in a good society (Economics and Social Welfare), the role of the arts in promoting civic action (The Politics of Punk Rock), human obligations to nonhuman beings (Animal Rights and Wrongs), and the human relationship to the environment (Gaia's Got a Fever). Some of the seminars explicitly encourage student civic engagement. In Stockton: A Good City?, students create a guide that analyzes Stockton's economic, cultural, governmental, and social groups, which the 2011 class will submit to the municipal government for possible public use. In Think Globally, Act Globally, students create a database of national overseas volunteerism opportunities and develop a plan for their own participation in these projects.
Reflecting on the Ethical Self
|Origin of the Pacific Seminars|
The Pacific Seminars grew out of three "Mentor Seminars" that formed the core of Pacific's general education program in the 1990s. Taken in the first year, Mentor 1 examined "timeless questions," and Mentor 2 focused on contemporary issues and culminated in a research project. Mentor 3 was taken in the senior year and focused on ethics and ethical autobiography. As a result of a general education program review, the Mentor Seminars became the Pacific Seminars in 2006. With the shift in name, the seminars became connected by a common theme that would be compelling and relevant to today's students and faculty: the nature of a good society. Faculty also began to create their own topical seminars for PACS 2, resulting in greater faculty investment and improved quality of required research projects.
Students across majors reconvene as seniors in PACS 3, a culminating seminar where they develop capacities for ethical self-understanding and ethical reasoning. Using a second common course reader edited by Pacific faculty, students learn about different moral development and ethical theories and examine different perspectives on issues related to family, friends, work, and citizenship. In the course's centerpiece assignment, students write an ethical autobiography, drawing on theoretical material to examine and articulate the nature and sources of their own moral values.
In comparison to PACS 1 and 2, PACS 3 focuses less on issues of diversity and more on students' own ethical development. At the same time, students use the skills they have developed in engaging diverse perspectives and in exploring their own beliefs about a good society to examine different philosophical perspectives. Through the course, students identify, analyze, and evaluate their own moral values and frameworks, engaging in self-reflection that is both retrospective and prospective. The course's common reader includes chapters on ethical relativism, on the relationship between ethics and religious belief, and on different philosophical theories about the concepts of right and wrong. Students learn about Kohlberg's moral theory and whether moral reasoning is gendered or culturally relative. They examine different versions of marriage, learn about parenting approaches and children's moral development, read about the relationship between moral and civic development, and revisit questions of patriotism, cosmopolitanism, and their own and America's ethical identity. Many students report that the course is personally transformative and that by writing their ethical autobiographies, they gain important self-understanding that will help them navigate the world after leaving Pacific. The course illustrates how ethical engagement on a national and global scale begins with a critical understanding of one's own ethical commitments.
Engaging with Diversity and Democracy
The Pacific Seminars series calls students of all majors to engage with issues of diversity and democracy. Pacific faculty want students not only to understand diversity in the United States and around the globe, but also to engage, through personal interactions in and out of class and through other forms of experiential learning, with those who are different from them. Through the PACS series, Pacific students learn to build friendships and relationships with colleagues while becoming citizens who can make their differences a source of collective strength.
Editor's note: Lou Matz was a coleader of University of the Pacific's Core Commitments Leadership Consortium team. To learn more about the Pacific Seminars, visit www.pacific.edu/x20945.xml or see Jhoanna Amigable's article on page 20.
Lou Matz is the associate dean and director of general education and associate professor of philosophy at the University of the Pacific.