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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

New club reinvents lost class

Published: January 18, 2008
Section: Front Page, News

carl-levin-new-club-news-article.jpgNew club Gen Ed Now is sponsoring its first event when Senator Carl Levin, Chair of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee comes to Brandeis to speak at the MLK celebration on Monday January 21.

Gen Ed Now, whose purpose is to bring influential leaders to speak on campus, comes from a once long-standing Brandeis tradition, Gen Ed S.

Gen Ed S, short for General Education Senior, was “an innovative course designed to help Brandeis students make the transition from university life to the outside world,” according to a description from the Brandeis University archives. The description continues, “Gen Ed S brought renowned individuals to campus to discuss influences and experiences that shaped their lives and work.”

Lectures for Gen Ed S were originally held in the Castle Commons, and brought to Brandeis a variety of influential leaders including Eleanor Roosevelt, Aaron Copland, Margaret Mead, Indira Gandhi, and Langston Hughes.

Gen Ed S began as a required course for seniors, and not only gave Brandeis students a chance to hear some of the most famous personalities of the era speak, but also it let students meet, chat, and get to know these people. A select group of students, often based on the field of the speaker, was given the opportunity to sit and have a meal with the guest speaker.

However, in the early 1960s, for reasons currently unknown, Gen Ed S ceased to be a required course and soon “faded away” according to Prof. David Hackett Fischer (HIST), who began teaching at Brandeis in 1962.

Fast-forward about 45 years to Spring 2007, when Brandeis hosted former president Jimmy Carter. Fischer introduced Carter and remarked, “this is an event that rises from a Brandeis tradition of inviting leaders to meet with our students who we think will lead in the future. It started at the very beginning of the university; we had as part of the curriculum, a formal course called Gen Ed S…. it was meant to be the capstone of the undergraduate curriculum and leaders came in from every imaginable field…and the theme was always the same of learning from leaders.”

At the time, Jonah Seligman ’10 was taking a class with Fischer. He spoke with Fischer more extensively about Gen Ed S and this is when Seligman began to think about a revival of Gen Ed S.

Fischer became “an unofficial advisor” to both Seligman and Dan Gillman ’10, who was not taking Fischer’s class, but starting working with Seligman on the idea of bringing Gen Ed S back.

Over the past year, Seligman and Gillman have met with a variety of people including library archivist Karen Adler Abramson, Lorna Miles from the Office of Communication, Office of Alumni Relations, and President Reinharz, to do research about Gen Ed S, since most of the Brandeis community had little to no knowledge about the course.

Through Alumni Relations, an e-mail questionnaire was sent out to the earliest Brandeis alumni asking them to recall their memories of Gen Ed S. Seligman and Gillman received over 50 pages of e-mail responses from alumni, who all recalled with enthusiasm Gen Ed S and overwhelmingly supported a return of the program (see sidebar).

In planning a new version of Gen Ed S, Seligman and Gillman had to decide whether to try and replicate the original version of Gen Ed S as a required senior class or take a different route towards revival. Seligman and Gillman spent last summer “looking at the structure” and decided, according to Gillman, “it would be very difficult to maintain a class.”

It was finally decided that Gen Ed S would return as a club, under a new name – Gen Ed Now.

Seligman and Gillman began researching about other speaking clubs at other universities to brainstorm different ideas. One idea, taken from a variety of schools including Stanford Graduate School of Business, Arizona State University, University of Alabama, UMass Lowell, UC San Diego, and others, is to give professors a chance to give their “last lecture,” intended for students to learn from the reflections of the professor.

Other ideas include a “Civic Service Week,” which, according to Seligman, would “partner up different organizations to form panels with speakers from different organizations,” all in answering the question, “how do you better serve the community?”

Currently, Gen Ed Now is a recognized club, but not a chartered club. As such, they cannot request funding from F-board.

“One of our biggest concerns was money,” remarked Gillman. “We found out that Brandeis rarely pays its speakers honorariums. Why? Because we’re students and people really appreciate student interest.”

Fischer praised Seligman and Gillman on their work and research and said that the success of Gen Ed Now “will hinge on the response of the Brandeis students.”

Continuing on the theme of traditions, Fischer said, “it’s good for a university to cherish its best traditions.” He added, “Brandeis is young in more than once sense. It’s continually reinventing itself.”

Editor’s Note: Jonah Seligman is a Hoot contributor.