Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Flavia brings up an important point:
It's all very well to say that some people just want a vocational education, or a piece of paper that will entitle them to a pencil-pushing white-collar job, but students who simply aren't aware that they can do better/different shouldn't be forced to settle for that--for whatever their dumb uncle or high school guidance counselor told them was their best course.

In short, tracking students--especially if we're talking about 18-20 year-olds--into two different kinds of degree, one of them a "lite" degree meant for students of more modest ability or ambition, seems to be to be saying that kids who went to crappy high schools, or who were academic screw-ups or just immature in high school, aren't capable of intellectual change and growth in college. And my experience (and I think your own?) suggests otherwise.

Last night, FLG responded that this is why he isn't advocating eliminating these requirements altogether, but instead reducing it from two years to one. But something about Flavia's point has stuck in FLG's head.

On one hand, there's something to this. One doesn't know what one doesn't know, and 18 year-olds certainly don't know what they don't know. FLG was lucky enough to be exposed to a variety of cultural pursuits that led him to value the liberal arts. And it is unfortunate if students who would flourish personally, intellectually, and professionally after having been exposed to humanities never have the experience.

On the other hand, FLG remembered this passage from Plato:
And, therefore, calculation and geometry and all the other elements of instruction, which are a preparation for dialectic, should be presented to the mind in childhood; not, however, under any notion of forcing our system of education.

Why not?

Because a freeman ought not to be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind. Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.


Flavia said...

It's a genuine problem, and I get where you're coming from--there's something patronizing and paternalistic in assuming that one knows better what will benefit a student to study. But at the same time, it's true that most of us don't know what we'll like until we do it. (And then there's the problem of being taught a potentially interesting subject by a crappy teacher, or at an age when one isn't ready for it...)

I'm perfectly okay with the humanities being a minority pursuit, but not when that means deciding in advance who the elect elite are who get to study these issues. That means that I'm more comfortable than you are with a mild amount of coercion, in the form of curriculum or distribution requirements--as long as those requirements are intelligently designed and regularly revisited, and there's an institutional commitment to making such requirements both intellectually rigorous and accessible.

Of course, this isn't always, or maybe even often the case: Gen Ed classes get taught by adjuncts, or in huge lecture halls, and thereby do few people any good. When I'm Empress of the World, however, an institution's best faculty will routinely teach intro classes, and in manageable sizes, thus attracting whichever students are available to be attracted, and leaving the rest free to major in Rec & Leisure or Health Sciences.

Anonymous said...

As a guy who went to a community college, and to a (locational) state college, and to a flagship state u, and to an Ivy - I saw a lot of ability/interest range. An awful lot of the kids at community college and Locational State were looking for a credential, or following their parents' dreams.

We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol' boys from Tennessee
And college men from LSU
Went in dumb - come out dumb too
Hustlin' 'round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Gettin' drunk every weekend at the barbecue

It was a plausible thing to do in my day - you could get a job which required a degree - but is getting less so as the number of degreed people so far surpasses the number of jobs which need them. And they are coming out saddled with crushing debt.

I'm in favor of second chances, and I think if they exist you can make the first chance door a little harder to get through, to everyone's benefit. dave.s.

Jeff said...

The paternalism Flavia mentions--this whole business of "well, someone who's going to manage a hotel doesn't need to know this stuff"--is a sticking point for me as well.

Last year, the university where I used to teach began to re-tool its entire curriculum to emphasize "workplace skills." (An impatient assistant dean rejected most of my desperate attempts to argue that medieval literature had "workplace relevance.") What I most hated about this huge shift in the curriculum was that it told adult undergrads at a "second chance" school: "You're destined to work in an office. You'll never start a business, run for office, become an entrepreneur, write a novel, intent a gadget, attend law school or grad school, travel the world...no, just sit there in your cubicle. It's where you belong."

As someone who long ago used a big state school to escape from a very dull job--account rep at a corporate tax consultancy--I'm glad my university didn't have such institutionally low expectations for me. So if we're going to turn our universities into vocational schools, can we at least stop calling them "universities" and cease pretending that we're trying to produce thinkers rather than workers?

The kid at the lower-tier or second-chance school already knows he's missing out on the social capital of his peers at better schools; let's be honest with him about what else they're getting that he isn't.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.