Rice University has long been known primarily as a school of science and engineering. Now its president wants to build a span across the widening gap between technical disciplines and the liberal arts. Under a curriculum revision proposed by President George Rupp, students majoring in science or engineering would also be required to develop in-depth knowledge in some area of the humanities, while liberal-arts students would have to pursue some focused expertise within the sciences.
The plan is the object of much discussion on this oak-ringed campus. It comes as colleges across the country discuss how to adapt education to prepare students better for the 1990s and beyond.
As early as the 1950s British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow warned about the consequences of a communications breakdown between what he called ``the two cultures.'' Rice's curriculum idea is aimed at promoting interdisciplinary thinking between the sciences and humanities.
Dr. Rupp, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, says the need to create bonds between those cultures has become even more important as disciplines become specialized and technology becomes a part of everyday life.
As currently outlined, the Rice proposal would require students focusing on one of the cultures also to take two foundation courses in the other one, followed by a ``coherent'' cluster of courses - constituting a ``minor'' - in a particular area of that culture.
``It's not enough for students to leave here with a sense of confidence only in their particular major,'' Rupp says. He points out that only about 1 percent of the US population has formal training in science or engineering. ``Yet almost every issue we confront as a society has a technological dimension,'' he adds.
The Rice proposal comes amid unabated criticism - from individuals like Secretary of Education William Bennett and in a string of blue-ribbon reports - of US undergraduate education. A large number of colleges across the country are considering some form of curriculum revision. A recent survey by the American Council on Education reported that more than 80 percent of American colleges are either implementing curriculum changes or have done so in the recent past.
The ACE survey found that most of those changes entailed new basic requirements, or gave new weight to learning communication and reasoning skills.
Along the lines of the Rice proposal, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is considering a curriculum overhaul that would encourage students to give greater consideration to the ramifications of technological advancement. Among the proposals at MIT are interdisciplinary courses to be taught jointly by faculty from the sciences and the humanities.
Rupp says it was in part his perception of a nationwide need that led him to propose in his October 1985 inaugural address some change to bridge the ``chasm between what have come to be called the two cultures.''
Despite its reputation as a science and engineering school, Rice's relatively small (2,600) undergraduate student body is evenly divided between the cultures.
The proposed curriculum reform is endorsed by many on the Rice faculty. But it is not meeting with universal acceptance.
Philosophy professor Konstantin Kolenda says requiring students to pursue in-depth knowledge outside their majors will ``force them to think in terms of relationships, of how things are interrelated.'' Biology professor Ron Sass says students ``can come out of this learning that there are different ways of thinking, and that's healthy.''
But Alan Grob, chairman of the English department, says the proposal would encourage two of the academic tendencies it purports to reduce: narrowness and over-specialization.
``I don't see any reason for an electrical engineer to embark on a course of study concentrated in Asian studies,'' says Dr. Grob, ``when it's to the exclusion of courses he'd like to take in Shakespeare, modern philosophy, or European history.'' He says a recent study shows that Rice undergraduates already take ``an amazing number of courses'' in disciplines outside their fields.
Grob also worries that the proposal would limit the traditional freedom afforded Rice students to ``explore'' outside their majors.
``It is true the [curriculum] revision is a move toward constraining absolute free choice,'' Rupp concedes. ``But today there is a pressing social need for people whose center of interest is in the arts or humanities, for example, to have an informed knowledge of the world of science. A passing acquaintance at the level of abstraction is no longer enough.''