University of California at Berkeley

Five Years of American Cultures

The Initiative That Brought Far-Reaching Curricular Change Remains an Innovator

 by Marie Felde

It has been five years since the campus instituted the American Cultures requirement, a move that made news on the front pages of the nation's leading newspapers and continues to reverberate in the educational community.

At Berkeley, the innovative approach to presenting the diversity of the American experience has become part of the very fabric of the university.

"If we look at the number of faculty who have stepped forward to teach the courses, the number of departments that have contributed courses, the range and quality of the courses, and our ability to keep ahead of the vast enrollments without a float, we have I think created the largest and farthest reaching curricular change ever at Berkeley or anywhere else that I know of," said Professor William Simmons.

Simmons, now dean of social sciences, is the former director of the Center for the Teaching and Study of the American Cultures.

He also chaired the Academic Senate's Special Committee on Education and Ethnicity that developed the requirement.

Berkeley's student body in the '80s had become increasingly diverse. And what students were telling the faculty was, "I don't see myself in the curriculum."

The faculty studied the problem and in 1989 the American Cultures Breadth Requirement was born.

Starting in the fall semester of 1991, the requirement called for new undergraduates to pass one course before they graduated that helps them to understand the American society in its entirety -- not just a slice of it.

Since then, 39,500 students have enrolled in 400 classes offered from among the 234 approved American Cultures courses.

Last year, there were 10,000 seats offered in 107 classes that fulfilled the requirement.

Courses meeting the requirement can be offered in any discipline.

However, each must present the diversity of the American experience by comparing and integrating the experience of at least three of the following groups:

indigenous peoples of the United States,



Chicano/Latinos and


From the start, the requirement was far-reaching and sometimes controversial.

Faculty had to volunteer to develop a whole host of new courses, usually requiring them to expand their own scholarly base.

These new courses had to meet a rigorous review.

And then they had to be offered in large enough numbers to assure there would be enough seats available in a variety of courses to meet the student demand.

To assist the faculty and to guide the new approach, the Center for the Teaching and Study of the American Cultures was established, with the support of chancellors Heyman and Tien.

Simmons served as the center's first director. Ronald Choy continues as the assistant director and the center's one full-time employee.

"Ron and Bill have succeeded we are at the point where we have to continue to succeed," said Mitchell Breitwieser, professor of English who was appointed director of the center last spring.

Breitwieser said the next step is for the American Cultures approach to "percolate into the general conscious of the university.

"At first, there were certain disciplines that seemed as if they would be immune to offering American Cultures courses, but my hunch now is that maybe nothing's immune."

As an example, Breitwieser cited a forestry class, Environmental Science, Policy and Management 50. Students learn to evaluate the role of culture in how we use and manage natural resources -- from wild lands to urban forests and parks. Like many of the courses, it satisfies both the American Cultures requirement and a major requirement.

To keep the success of the American Cultures requirement from becoming old news, a day-long session, "American Cultures: After Five Years," will be held Oct. 9 in the Maude Fife Room of Wheeler Hall from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Breitwieser, who teaches a large American Cultures course in post-World War II American fiction, said the American Cultures classes and faculty seminars he has been involved with "have been the most vigorous intellectual experience in my 17 years here."

Choy, who has been with the center from its start, said students too have found their American Cultures experiences memorable.

"They see it as part of the Berkeley experience. We've found students approach these courses with the need and desire to talk about their own relationship with other people in society and the courses provide an academic forum to do this," said Choy.

That's not to say the courses are not academically rigorous. "Before this even started, some faculty critics said they would be political feel-good or ethnic cheer-leading classes. If anything, students complain that American Cultures classes are too hard and require too much course work" for a graduation requirement, he said.

Currently, about a quarter of the total enrollment comes from courses offered by the Department of Ethnic Studies, but courses have come from all over campus. Faculty members from 43 departments participate.

"Our approach has been to help the faculty who want to do it. In the past five years, about one-fourth to one-third of the fellows were faculty new to this. They came from out of the woodwork.

"They found it was a lot of work to develop and teach these courses, but they also found the experience tremendously worthwhile," said Choy.

So far, the center has assisted 147 American Cultures Fellows, faculty members who participate in and shape a summer seminar program. Another 90, including faculty and graduate student instructors, have also taught American Cultures courses.

The innovative program was recognized last year with the campus's Educational Initiatives Award and has also won the attention of educators outside Berkeley.

In 1994, it was awarded a certificate of excellence from the Theodore M. Hesburgh Award and a letter of commendation from President Clinton. The Pew Charitable Trusts awarded the program a $350,000 grant in 1991.

But the biggest benefit to the new program, said Choy, has been the campus's support. "The campus has really funded this. That has made a big difference. This kind of tangible support means a lot to the faculty," said Choy.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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