Written by Laura Romer
Paideia. Pie-day-uh. Uh. That last syllable seems to be the general consensus for that ever elusive question of what is Paideia.
According to the university’s website, “while the exact meaning of the term “paideia” is open to interpretation, it is generally held that paideia refers to the ‘sum total of one’s educational experiences.’”
Again, what is Paideia? Responses include: raised eyebrows, “uh’s,” shaky laughs and even a “not going to even try to say what it is.”
“It’s hard to really define something like Paideia – something that changes with each group depending on the people involved,” sophomore Cameron Duggins said.
Senior Brennan Peel echoes that sentiment. “It’s a fluid thing, changing, [and] subjective. I think it has real qualities and real benefits, but I think those qualities and benefits must be actively sought by students,” Peel said.
David Gaines, director of Paideia since 2006 and associate professor of English, said, “The main organizing principles of it [Paideia] are students would have an enriched civic engagement experience, an enriched research or creative works experience, an enriched intercultural experience and that they would see the connection between all those things, those elements and share those awarenesses, reflections [and] sense of connections with nine other students from different majors [and] a professor for six semesters together.”
Paideia started in 2002 upon receiving a monetary gift from the Priddy Foundation after Southwestern was one of 30 liberal arts schools invited to propose a program that would change how liberal arts work in the country.
Gaines, who has been with the program since its inception, has seen all the changes that accompany it. “Initially, these groups were brought together with an attempt to balance gender and to have people from different majors and get that true interdisciplinary experience,” he said. “But there was no thematic organization to it.”
Students now in Paideia, who are referred to as scholars, are divided into groups, or cohorts, of ten that represent different majors and meet for six semesters.
Originally, a faculty member had two Paideia groups instead of now only one. Another change included a longer list of requirements that was more specific then and not as flexible as the program is now.
With the most recent round of Paideia scholars, cohorts were given organizing themes, similar to the idea of how First-Year Seminar is structured, that stress social engagement. Some of the past year’s themes include Vision and Visuality, Green Thought and Green Action, Film and Politics, Understanding Human Behavior, and Truth, Beauty, and Wisdom.
Aside from the new themes and faculty for the upcoming year, a major shift in Paideia is that there will be a higher number of people turned down than ever before.
This year, the program had a record number of applicants with 120 students competing for 80 spots. Due to the large number, Gaines says students will not be notified of their acceptance until after spring break instead of the earlier stated March 13.
Additionally, as opposed to the usual 90 percent acceptance rate, now only 67 percent of applicants will be admitted into the program after being carefully selected through an admissions process, which is also new to the program this year.
The $1000 reimbursement, which can be used for a plane ticket, research, a creative work or other program-related expenses, will still be available, but Gaines considers the one-hour of credit more of a long-term issue.
“We continue to need to think about where the one hour of pass/fail really fits for what students want out of it and what faculty want out of the program.”
While students may hesitate in their attempts to explain what Paideia is, they have no problems in describing what is done in Paideia. “It’s been fun getting to know a new group of people especially while learning and helping others in the process,” Duggins said.
Others take an opposite stance. A junior Paideia scholar said “Going to class is a chore… we just talk about the fact that we haven’t done anything,” but adds, “I think Paideia, if done well, can be really beneficial. Unfortunately… I don’t find my group very beneficial.”
Gaines acknowledges the complicated nature of Paideia. “If it’s like another class on campus, it’s really not working. It’s supposed to be more of a synthesizing and cross-disciplinary experience,” he said
Sophomore Brady Granger, tries to take a stab at a definition. “It was clearly explained that Paideia is what you make it,” he said.
Currently there are 11 questions listed under the Frequently Asked Questions for Paideia on the Southwestern website.
Perhaps one more really should be added: But what is Paideia? Then again, maybe it is best if that one is just left as fill in the blank.