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Shakespeare and Socrates: Welcome to the 21st Century

On some fronts, American universities have been the vanguard of change. They've pioneered scientific research and welcomed new ideas inside and outside the classroom.

Except, that is, in the sleepy halls of ivy where the humanities are taught. You know: philosophy, history, literature, languages. They have been taught with reverence, as if they are immutable canons of wisdom and sacred truths. These may be called the liberal arts, but the interpretation of them has been conservative to the extreme.

But the dull, almost rote presentation of dusty material does not fit the realities of the fast-paced, ever-changing and ever-questioning 21st century. So, many universities are retooling to meet those realities.

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for instance, reorganized its entire curriculum. The emphasis now is on interpreting the classics through television, the Internet and the prism of modern life in general, rather than just offering up, unchallenged, what one university official called the work of dead white males. The life of the nation's first president, George Washington, for instance, is studied, not as a museum piece, but for the lessons his life holds for us today. Instead of just reading about Aristotle, students are performing and critiquing his works on TV.

At UCLA, Stanford, and other colleges, educators are widely introducing material about non-white, non-male change agents through history. They say they're not knuckling under to pressures to make every subject politically correct. They are trying to make the humanities relevant to the culturally diverse nature of modern life.

We don't want college to be all fun and games, they insist. They say they simply want to use modern tools to examine age-old truths.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.