Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A New Dawn for the University? Part 1

Editor's Note : When the Egyptians created the first university over 1000 years ago--Al-Azhar in Cairo--it was envisioned as a place for advanced academic instruction, disciplined thought, debate and meditation on the student's relationship to society and the world around him.

Then something went wrong.  Everything shifted towards corporate internships and a straight line between a 4-year degree and a 5-6 figure salary.  Effectively, your entrance exams became your first job interview.

Today, the increasingly desperate marketing of colleges notwithstanding, we all know the truth.  That straight line has been broken. The commercial value of a degree is now dubious. But that may be a good thing. 

It may mean that serious Universities can resume a traditional non-career-based role as institutions where we learn about ourselves, our society and how to think more clearly about issues more profound than resumes. This could be a silver lining in a world where there will never again be enough jobs.  

The University, at least, may be allowed to get back to its earnest, erudite, creative roots.  Back to Cairo in the 10th century.

Case in point:  Professor of Journalism Claudia Ricci is a noted educator, novelist and journalist. She is also a founding partner in the Wordsmith Wars  blog. In the past year she has put together a custom academic curriculum at the State University of New York. It addresses a subject very much needed by students and society as we grind through the current Depression. The subject: Happiness.

Here's the course prospectus:

ERDG 491Z -- University at Albany, SUNY
Professor Claudia Ricci, Ph.D.

Reading and writing transform the way we think, and how we see ourselves in the world. Neurological research now shows that changing the way we think can produce positive physiological changes in the brain. At a time when an epidemic of mental health issues plagues our nation, and threatens to paralyze students in the academy, this class presents a set of cognitive tools and practical skills that will help students refine and enhance their educational goals while examining a broad range of life issues. Beginning with philosophical ideas set forth by Aristotle, the class will rely on texts from psychology, neuroscience, literature and narrative theory, to open up discussions about the patterns of human behavior and thinking that tend to produce lasting fulfillment and deep reward. In keeping with research by psychologist James Pennebaker and others who have demonstrated the value of expressive writing, students will engage in extensive journaling and other self-reflective writing assignments as they seek to define what it means, and what it takes, to find happiness. Part of the work in the classroom will be to help students identify their individual “signature strengths” that can produce what positive psychologist Martin Seligman defines as “authentic happiness and abundant gratification.” In addition to classroom work, a special two-hour laboratory session, with attendant readings and writing exercises, will be required each week; students will work with experts in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, spirituality and stress reduction, and will document how these techniques can help the student better cope with the inherently stressful nature of University life.

 In the coming days, Professor will be posting blogs that draw on the techniques and outcomes of her first Happiness curriculum.

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