A nexus of thought

Puget Sound students and faculty probe the nature of a liberal arts education on provocative PBS TV pilot

By Mary Boone

A college student dressed in a bee suit and beret smokes a cigarette while Puget Sound Professor Robin Foster draws the parallel between the behavior of social animals, such as bees, and humans.

It’s not a typical teaching scenario for Foster, a professor of psychology and animal behavior, but then, this isn’t your typical venue.

Foster is one of four Puget Sound faculty members and four students featured in a new television special, "A Thinking America." The show, aimed at discussing the nature of liberal arts education, is the pilot for a proposed four-part series. KCTS-TV (Seattle) produced the special in association with Lark International and the University of Puget Sound. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded the project.

Academic Vice President Terry Cooney says the idea for the PBS show came to light about four years ago during a conversation between Puget Sound President Susan Resneck Pierce and Carolynn Reid-Wallace of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (now on the Puget Sound board of trustees).

"The liberal arts experience has been the subject of a lot of discussion in recent years," says Cooney. "It almost always comes back to the question of ‘How do we talk to high school students about the type of education they want to receive?’"

"A Thinking America" explores concepts central to the liberal arts experience: community and self. Within those themes, faculty from a variety of academic disciplines help viewers consider issues on a cross-platform basis.

In addition to Foster’s "social animals" discussion, Michele Birnbaum, professor of English and African American studies, explores the topic of loneliness through Langston Hughes’ poem "Hurt." Bill Barry, associate dean and professor of classics and history, uses The Tragedy of Antigone as the foundation for a discussion about conflicting loyalties. Kate Stirling, professor of economics, illustrates the concepts of global economics through her discussion about the purchase of a pair of tennis shoes. And, Ravi Ravindra, a professor of physics and comparative religion at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, leads a discussion that merges science and religion when he theorizes about the place humans occupy in the universe.

Each of the professors worked with PBS to develop their own scripts. Most of the show’s taping took place at Microsoft’s studios in Redmond, Wash.

Between instructor-led discussions, 10 students of varying ages and backgrounds answer questions ranging from "Are you ever really alone?" to "How do you change the world?" Four of the featured students are from Puget Sound: Devielle Johnson ’99, Ben Haevner ’99, Fred Lopez ’98 and Heather Dunn ’99.

"A Thinking America" first aired on KCTS-TV in November, following a premiere showing in Puget Sound’s Rotunda. The Seattle PBS station is now working with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to determine whether the pilot is worthy of a multi-show series. If that happens and the show is broadcast on PBS stations across the country, it’s likely it will be supplemented with materials educators can use to help students and parents learn to ask the right questions when selecting a college.

"We at Puget Sound considered the show to be quite a success," says Cooney. "The discussion by the students in the program is really quite moving. I think their comments will help other students understand that this is what education is all about. It’s not always about having the answers. Rather, it’s about approaching questions from a variety of angles and seeing how those perspectives come together."