HEATHER BENSON, a college sophomore, has some unusual ideas about what she wants to teach elementary school kids when she becomes a teacher: Plato, Socrates, maybe even Homer's ``Iliad.'' That may sound high-minded, but it's completely logical to her and a group of education students at Boston University who enrolled in a new course last semester called ``Cultural Foundations for Educators.''
``Kids are a lot smarter than people give them credit for,'' says Ms. Benson. Children could more easily grasp the story of Socrates ``than a 45-year-old adult could,'' she says.
The experimental course, soon to be mandatory for education majors here, attempts to tackle the problem of cultural and artistic illiteracy among teachers, and, in the long run, restore a sense of culture, ethics, and moral principles among the nation's schoolchildren.
According to Peter Greer, dean of the School of Education, this isn't just another literature course trying to beef up the ``content'' portion of undergraduate teacher training. It combines hard-core content with method, he says, rather than the typical practice of separating the two.
This past semester, students discussed works from the Greco-Roman tradition - Plato, Aristotle, Homer - as well as portions of the Bible. The course included trips to area museums to view paintings and sculpture depicting ancient themes and Biblical tales.
Art is ``a terribly underutilized resource,'' says Steven Tigner, who teaches the class. ``I've never met a student who thought that looking at pictures was work.'' For one lab, Dr. Tigner's students guided a group of local high-school kids through Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The class jointly wrote a manual for teachers called ``Great Stories, Great Art.''
``We want them [education students] to understand their own culture and be able to pass it on and feel obligated to pass it on,'' adds Dean Greer, who says he knows of no other education school with this approach.
NEXT fall, the class will take up texts from Virgil to Shakespeare, and the fall after that, 18th- through 20th-century texts, including non-Western material.
``I try to dwell on anything which is relevant to moral education and critical thinking,'' says Tigner. Class discussions pick apart difficult works such as Aristotle's ``Nicomachean Ethics'' and analyze the moral content in children's books like ``Frog and Toad Together,'' by Arnold Lobel.
``I got a lot out of Plato's `Republic,''' says Chris Studer, a sophomore who wants to become a high-school history teacher. ``I learned a lot about how teachers might bring out the best in the student.'' Chris says he found the Socratic method of teaching, based on questions and answers, especially important. ``You can get a student really engaged in a discussion - not just having them write an assignment or having me lecture.''
Professor Tigner has taught similar ``great texts'' courses around the country, including sessions for both elementary and high-school teachers at the Portland/Falmouth Teachers Academy in Maine.
``The teachers still talk to me about that and say how valuable it was for them,'' says Eve Bither, commissioner for the Department of Education for the State of Maine. ``[They] say it changed their life and how they looked at their profession.''
One day, when the class was discussing the ``Nicomachean Ethics,'' Tigner brought in small bags of potato chips as props. He acted out Aristotle's definition of ``brutishness'' by literally pouncing on one bag, ripping it apart, and devouring the chips like an ape. ``Self-indulgence'' he illustrated by sneaking up to a bag of chips, nervously peering over his shoulder, then gulping them down.
When the laughter faded, he asked ``What are you going to do in your kindergarten classroom to help them [the students] get above their self-indulgence? ... How are you going to help your students get rid of bad behavior?''
When analyzing a classic text with his students, Tigner ``does make reference to the classroom a lot,'' says Benson. ``That's the purpose of the class ... to see that these things aren't something you read about and forget, but they give more of an understanding of what's going on. They've lasted this long for a reason.''