SAN DIEGO — Tom Dorman is a 26-year-old Marine Corps tank commander who has read everything William Shakespeare wrote. But he wants to know more about how Shakespeare's verse fits into the real world.
Ellie Dorman, 55, his mother and a secretary for the San Diego Unified School District, has always dreamed of going back to school. But she has never found adult education courses very satisfying, and most degree programs she has investigated are too narrowly focused for her needs.
The mother-son team will get the chance for graduate work this fall when they become members of the first class in a new San Diego State University program that allows students to earn an interdisciplinary master's degree in any liberal arts field that interests them.
Liberal Arts Emphasis
The creation of SDSU's Master of Arts in Liberal Arts curriculum makes the university part of a nationwide return to liberal arts education spurred by growing concern that American graduate schools are turning out a generation of unworldly technocrats and professionals.
"The feeling is that there (were) a lot of people throughout the '70s who went to college and got a technical, career-oriented education," said Fred Moramarco, an SDSU English professor who will head the new graduate program.
"They came away with very little liberal arts background. They were well-prepared for their jobs, but they were not oriented toward culture and history and literature, the things people traditionally went to college for."
The SDSU program is aimed at filling that void for people in their 30s through 80s who want to enrich their lives with more education without seeking the payoff of a degree that will move them up professionally.
SDSU will become only the second university in Southern California to offer the degree and will be the only one in the region by 1989, when the University of Southern California closes its financially strapped Master of Liberal Arts Program after 19 years.
SDSU is building a degree based around four interdisciplinary core courses, to be team-taught by professors from very different departments. For example, there will be a course on medical ethics taught by a biology professor and a philosophy professor, one on film and sexual politics offered by a telecommunications professor and a women's studies professor, and a third on the mind taught by a physical scientist and a medical historian. In an unusual and expensive move, both professors will be in the classroom at all times.
In addition to the core courses and seminars, each student will take five graduate courses from various departments that are related to the theme the student is exploring. A final thesis or project will culminate the course work. Thirty credits are needed to graduate.
The hope is that the degree will produce some Renaissance men and women who can build on the experience they have gained during their lifetimes.
Because most students will be working full time, the classes will be concentrated on evenings and weekends. It would not be unusual to take three or four years to finish the degree, said Stephen Roeder, the program's acting director.
"Liberal (arts) education is wasted on youth," Roeder said. "It's when you're older and more mature that you realize how terribly germane this is to your life. They're looking for something, some new meaning in their lives."
Tom Dorman, who earned a bachelor's degree in English literature at the University of Colorado before becoming a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, brings a love of Shakespeare and Melville to the courses.
The program "was absolutely what I needed," he said. "My specific interest is literature. I've read the specific authors, but I've never analyzed things from an interdisciplinary point of view."
His mother, Ellie, is pursuing "education for education's sake," she said.
"My life at this point is very contented," she said. "I have no professional goals to go up the ladder. I'm settled in where I am and very happy. I'm not trying to be president of a bank anymore.
"I've always wanted to go back to school. I've gone to classes for adults, adult education, and that was not real satisfying. On the other hand, I did not want to go on and get a master's degree to be a teacher.
"I have for years jokingly said that I could never go back to school because I could never find a parking place. I was never stimulated to do it. This program combines a variety of things that are interesting."
Making Up for Lost Time
Another student, Martin Capp, 74, the retired dean of the SDSU School of Engineering, is seeking to make up for time lost by devoting himself entirely to his profession.
"I feel an inadequacy in the sense that my entire career has been devoted to engineering, and now I simply hope to pursue more liberal studies. I want to learn to write more effectively," Capp said.