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Fiat Lux: A pedagogical utopia

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In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, I was among a number of faculty members who volunteered that fall to teach a Fiat Lux seminar. It was originally envisioned as a forum for students to deal with the trauma of the events through extensive discussions and the voicing of their concerns and fears in a small class. But I was not prepared for the extraordinary experience that was to follow.

Although I have taught for three decades in a diversity of academic settings, that first Fiat Lux class was among the most rewarding experiences I have ever had as a teacher. I admit I was very fortunate to have exceptionally bright, caring and articulate students, and I was moved deeply by their passion and by the manner in which they saw Sept. 11 as an opportunity to heal the wounds of the world, to right injustices and inequality, and to seek peace instead of revenge. Were our leaders as wise and generous as those young undergraduates, our world would be a far better place than it is today.

But the question is why a senior professor, for three years the chair of the largest department in the Division of Social Sciences and closer to my retirement than I would like to admit, has continued to teach two Fiat Lux courses every year on top of a very heavy teaching schedule? Under the enlightened leadership of Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Judy Smith — and we owe a great debt to her and to her staff for the great success of the program — Fiat Lux courses have now been institutionalized and have become an integral part of our undergraduate curriculum and of UCLA’s pedagogical mission.

These seminar-based classes are a formidable heuristic tool. For students, the courses are a setting for close contact with ladder faculty — most of them senior professors. This form of teaching is at the very heart of what education ought to be: an opportunity to engage faculty and students in thoughtful and collegial discussions about an array of topics.

In true Socratic fashion, we are asking our students to embrace a reflective life. For faculty, and specifically for myself, the Fiat Lux courses allow us to examine topics that are often difficult to present in regular classes. Over the past five years, for example, my students and I have explored medieval romances and utopian and dystopian works ranging from Plato’s “Republic” to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

One of the most delightful Fiat Lux courses I have taught examined the architecture and ethnicity of Los Angeles, and included a daylong walking tour of downtown L.A. and the canals of Venice. Isn’t our true calling to help our students discover the world?

Fiat Lux classes are “pass or no pass.” They are all about learning, not about the grade. What can be better? I do teach about utopias, but for me Fiat Lux courses are, in fact, a pedagogical utopia come true.

Ruiz is professor of history.

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