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.
The curriculum in Thematic Option is centered on interdisciplinary approaches that develop students’ abilities to think critically about themselves and their place in history and society. T.O. creates a small intellectual community through various kinds of programming inside and outside the classroom that generates a free flow of ideas, debate, and conversation through the student population, including an annual research conference where students can present their original work in an academic formal setting, tying together what they have learned in the program as they engage with each other’s budding research interests. Across its curriculum, Thematic Option strives to equip students for a life as critical and dialectical thinkers and, equally important, equip them with the ability to intelligently express themselves and engage in dialogue within their respective field(s), profession(s), as well as across various perspectives that make up the public sphere.
The program has three broad learning objectives:
1. Students learn to think across disciplines, to not be constrained by the methods and concepts of any one approach. The name “Thematic Option” stems from its interdisciplinary strategy for general education, which allows students to trace specific concepts, such as the self, family, or progress, trans-historically and to discover the web of interconnection between academic fields visible from a thematic perspective. For example, CORE 102: Culture and Values may weave together literature, classics, history, philosophy, politics, and biology to consider questions of personal identity and social responsibility.
2. Students develop a love of language, an appreciation for the power of the written and spoken word.
a. 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. Students read primary texts rather than textbooks, which allows students to confront the canon on their own terms and form their own passionate points of view on these works.
b. Thematic Option’s writing seminars emphasize close reading and argumentation through which students learn to express complex ideas cogently and concisely as persuasive writers. Importantly, students learn to integrate their own ideas with those of others, establishing their own voice and authority while supporting their stances by employing outside sources. Students should be able to assess broad rhetorical situations and respond confidently in a way that maintains the integrity of the student’s own voice.
3. Students learn to deal with ambiguity. Many of the challenges and issues we face and our students will face do not have clear-cut responses or solutions. Thematic Option courses are not about providing answers, but asking questions, often the so-called big questions like What is truth? What is justice? What is love? 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 and debate within themselves and among each other.
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, these are not minimum standards; any student who feels ready for a serious intellectual challenge may contact the College Honors Programs office for information including how to apply.