It isn’t enough that the freshmen in Thematic Option, USC’s honors general education program, are swamped with reading and papers, struggling to understand the greatest philosophers, writers and thinkers of Western civilization. They are also supposed to question the definitiveness of the very works they are told are so important—those of Homer, Plato, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Marx, Locke, Paine, Woolf —the multiple “canons” that have long set the standards in their disciplines.
Each year, 200 freshmen participate in this interdisciplinary core curriculum. "T.O." - as it's commonly called around campus - offers small classes with some of the University's best undergraduate teachers and a hand-picked group of writing instructors. The classes are stimulating, and the faculty are brought together with students for a variety of evening events including films, dinners, speakers, performances, and field trips. The intellectual community fostered by common coursework and evening events helps bright students find their peers and a sense of their own place during those crucial first few freshman weeks.
In Thematic Option's core classes students ask the big questions: What is human nature? The good life? A just society? The classes weave together literature, political science, history, philosophy, and other disciplines through four themes: “Culture and Values” and “Change and the Future,” which concern ethical issues; and “Symbols and Conceptual Systems” and “The Process of Change in Science,” which investigate how we gain knowledge.
The T.O. writing program includes both small writing classes and individual writing tutorials, in which students have an opportunity to refine their writing styles while discussing issues raised in the core curriculum. The program is structured so that the number of units required for students who choose T.O. is never more than the number of units required for students who complete regular general education requirements.
Thematic Option has three broad goals:
1. Students learn to think across disciplines, to not be constrained by the methods and concepts of any one approach.
2. Students develop a love of language, an appreciation for the power of the written and spoken word. Through Thematic Option’s writing seminars students learn to express themselves cogently and concisely as excellent writers. Through the CORE curriculum courses, students get a sense of the great tradition of Western thought, along with the ability to discuss it critically and open it up to inquiry.
3. Students learn to deal with ambiguity. Thematic Option courses are not about providing answers, but asking questions. What is truth? What is justice? Who am I? What responsibilities do I have to society? These are but a few of the grand questions with which Thematic Option students struggle as they become comfortable with the realm of uncertainty, an open space full of opportunities for exploration.
Students accepted to Thematic Option have a high school GPA of around 4.0 and a combined SAT I score of at least 2100. However, any student who feels ready for a serious intellectual challenge may contact the College Honors Programs office for information including how to apply.