Since Benjamin Franklin opened the Publick Academy of Philadelphia in 1749 and gave the University of Pennsylvania its start as the first college in the colonies aimed at more than just training clergy, colleges have been shifting and changing to reflect the society their students will join.
Franklin saw the need to offer classes that trained young men in “practical skills” in business and commerce for their new territory and its growing economy — and probably offered them some understanding of journalism and political science, which were his pre-occupations and which he must have thought might come in handy over the next few decades.
Today, as colleges face enormous changes and again try to adjust and find their place, their missions still often involve reflecting societal concerns, offering studies that deal with big, public issues such as climate change and gun violence and less visible but bubbling or emerging topics such as electric grid resilience, personal genomics or the loss of the bee population.
Several schools don’t just offer such courses – they enthusiastically promote them.
The University of Kansas has what it calls six classes for current events junkies which includes courses about presidential communication, moral issues in sports and surveillance.
While some might suggest that colleges need to temper trendiness in an atmosphere where critics insist they show their value and be more practical in their offerings, Carl Lejuez, dean of liberal arts at Kansas, makes no excuses.
“In any instance I can think of, knowing about current events and how political systems work and how global issues affect us is beneficial as an employee and citizen who can deeply understand issues, connect the dots between broad ideas and think about problems from more than one perspective,” he says.
Nicholas Syrett is chairman of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Kansas, which offers one of the courses: Perspectives of LGBT. He says it isn’t intended to be controversial or sensational.
“Along with race, class, and sexuality, gender structures much of how we interact whether we are conscious of it or not. These classes encourage students to question what they know about their world and their lives and about how the world could be more equitable.”
Cornell also offers a series of courses through its University Courses program that relate to current issues: Why Should You Care About What's in Your Genes, The Ethics of Eating, and Networks, which concerns all sorts of connections humans make through technology and personal interaction.
Williams College offers a course called the Psychology of Stress, and Columbia has a psychology class about the effect of multiculturalism on the mental health of society and individuals.
Emory University each fall promotes its 'cool classes,' last year highlighting courses where “service-based learning and academic rigor intersect with current events and new ideas.” They include a cutting edge course from predictive health experts using research on diseases with common causes and how their spread can be preempted by simple interventions and lifestyle changes. Emory is also offering courses applicable today through its center for humanitarian emergencies and updated courses in palliative care with new ideas about the elderly population’s health.
Taking on political controversy
While climate change studies or courses related to gender or race might be seen as overtly political and controversial, there are others that even more directly address political issues.
The presidency of Donald Trump is covered in a number of new courses at some schools, including one at Butler University in Indiana that angered his supporters, especially those in the school’s home state where Vice President Pence was governor. The school softened the language about the class (it had suggested the president was “perpetuating sexism, white supremacy, xenophobia, nationalism, nativism, and imperialism”), but still offered it.
A course in white studies at Arizona State University spurred a controversy that moved on to the state legislature. “Since the 1960s and the passage of the Civil Rights Act our nation has made great advances in protecting civil rights and curtailing discrimination,” said State Rep. Paul Boyer. “However, we are now seeing classes popping up that truly threaten these monumental gains.”
Other courses in whiteness have been criticized on one hand for focusing too much on the damaging behavior of the white culture and others with the same content have been attacked for glorifying it.
In its Peace Studies program, Swarthmore College presents courses such on gun violence prevention hoping to “bridge gaps between peace research, theory, and implementation,” according to Lee Smithey, director of the program.
“It is quite common for colleges and universities to offer courses on social problems, and it is reasonable to consider gun violence in the United States a prominent social and public health problem,” he says, noting that in the month following the Las Vegas massacre alone more than 900 people were shot and killed in the US. He says that data justifies giving students a better understanding of the issue — and training some who go on to become prominent advocates for gun control and safety.
Terrorism and its roots is also a popular topic on campuses, along with immigration. Amherst College has offered a course investigating whether women are becoming more conservative, while conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan offers a course covering The Progressive Rejection of the Founding and the Rise of Bureaucratic Despotism.
A broader look
Pamela Chasek, a professor at Manhattan College who has taught the school’s Global Issues Seminar and other classes about current international affairs, says they help students “become global citizens.”
“The idea is to connect students to the wider world in as many ways as possible. Forging connections between their lives and the greater world is the first step to creating global citizens who care about people and the planet.”
Barton College, a small liberal arts school in North Carolina, requires its students in their final two years to complete a capstone course on topical issues determined by a panel of professors. Students work together in their cohort and present their understanding of the issue in a variety of group formats, says Gerard Lange, a professor who often leads the course.
It has covered, for instance, gun violence, bias and criticizing the Internet, which looked critically at the web as a source of both useful and harmful information.
“It provides an environment where students learn to work with others that have different knowledge bases or come from different social, cultural, or economic backgrounds,” Lange says. "It addresses contemporary real world problems and pushes them towards higher order thinking," he notes.
Wilberforce University in Ohio has just opened the Mark and Shelly Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship, Social Good and Transformative Leadership, which will help its students through three institutes “develop and cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit, participate in transformative leadership opportunities, and grapple with social justice issues of our time.”
The school will offer current courses related to these topics through the center, but expand its curriculum with additional offerings, says Tashia Bradley, the center's interim executive director.
“Although we will have courses on critical issues, the center is more about how we prepare students to have an entrepreneurial intent, awareness and ability to engage around social concerns, and the passion to live, lead, and learn globally,” she says. “We hope interfacing with the center will encourage our students to change the world. It is not a response to the world we live in, but a plan for the future that we are determined to create.”