Monday, April 1, 2013

Keats and Yeats are on your side, but you lose

I meant to talk about the purpose of college in that last post but never quite got to it. So let's try again.

One thing I said there was this:
What is college or university for? Perhaps to provide students with certain knowledge, skills, and character traits. Perhaps to provide employers with suitable employees, society with suitable citizens, and students with suitable abilities to live a happy life. Perhaps to allow young people to have a good time for a few years before settling down. Perhaps we don't really know what it's for, but it's what we've done for hundreds of years (in various forms) and changing that might spell disaster.
I think there's something in each of these ideas: we should be benefiting students, and the economy, and the political community. We shouldn't rush students through this time (although do they really need four years rather than the usual English three?). And we should be conservative in our approach, because there is a lot at stake and once undone it will probably be hard to restore any civilized or civilizing baby that gets thrown out with the bath water. So what are we looking at?

Knowledge (i.e. knowledge that, knowledge of various facts) is probably minimally important, since people forget it, it goes out of date, and you can google that stuff pretty easily these days. Not that there shouldn't be any of it, but it strikes me as a low priority. Skills are probably more important (and of course will often incorporate some knowledge that), although as far as usefulness goes it's probably better not to get into specific work-related skills too much. These can be learned on the job, and employers very often prefer to teach them themselves (as Philip Cartwright pointed out). Apart from technical skills (how to do calculus, how to perform various lab procedures, etc.) which are of no use to anyone (can I say that?) who won't be using them in later life (and therefore should not be part of general education requirements, and are clearly not part of the humanities) the kind of skills I think employers, parents, politicians, and probably students themselves would like to see developed are writing (by which I mean primarily the basics: spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and the ability to be clear, or, collectively, how to avoid making a fool of yourself), general problem solving (tricky, but supposedly improved by courses that require substantial amounts of reading and writing), and the wherewithal to avoid being fooled by spin, lies, deceptive rhetoric, statistics, etc. In short, I think general education requirements should include little in the way of maths and science (maybe one course on each, along the lines of how to see through statistical manipulation, bogus claims about climate change, etc.) and a lot of humanities courses (probably mostly English and history to ensure lots of reading and writing, and philosophy to ensure careful reading and writing, logical reasoning, etc. Of course some English and history courses involve careful reading, but not all do.). Something like what I outlined here, but with more English in it, probably as an addition to rather than as a replacement of anything I listed before. These general humanities courses should teach students about their own culture and hopefully also something about other cultures. I think this would kill all the relevant birds with very few stones: students would be enriched, they would become better writers and thinkers, and they would become better informed citizens. Technical skills would be developed in the major. One problem is that my last list of gen ed requirements had fifteen courses in it, and now I want to add probably at least a couple of courses in American literature. And maybe one on American philosophy would be nice too. Isn't that too many? I don't know. But if you had about twenty required general courses (and even I only have eighteen so far), ten in the major, and ten electives (which could be major-related if necessary) then that sounds reasonable to me.

Why don't we do this now? Perhaps some schools do. But not all do, partly because of a misguided attempt to be relevant, for instance by teaching courses in business that do little good (because they don't have the rigor that characterizes courses that do produce measurable benefits, and nor do they provide intangible spiritual benefits--probably the reverse). It's also partly because students don't want to read or write, and we let them choose which courses they take, so they can avoid reading and writing much if they want (and they do want). Most professors have little to no incentive to make their courses demanding. The more writing you assign, the more grading you have to do. And no one gets tenure or promotion (or hired in the first place) for doing a lot of grading. Increasingly you have to publish to get these things, and piles of grading only get in the way of that. Not to mention that demanding courses are unpopular (which can mean both bad student evaluations of your teaching and low enrollments in your courses, either of which can mean that your job is in danger). So there is considerable incentive to assign little writing. To make your courses less rigorous, less good. Reading and writing are also old-fashioned, of course, and there are often incentives to be original, creative, etc., which you can't really be if you're assigning the classics and having students write longish papers on them. And then major decisions tend to be made either by politicians or administrators with some agenda (e.g. to make a name for themselves) or else by committees in which not everyone has a voice and decisions are often made on the basis of concerns about turf. In short, even if we all knew what was best for students, there is little reason to think that's what we would deliver. The system isn't set up that way.

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