Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Serious Subjects vs. Frills

This post at Mama Ph.D. raised a number of worthwhile issues. It's basically about people making distinctions between the 'essential' subjects -- the ones at which your performance really matters -- and the 'frills.'

I've heard students talk about this more times than I care to remember. But I have to admit that there's something to it.

My personal sense of it is that the distinction between core and periphery is largely a function of purpose. If your goal in life is to be an exhibited artist, then you might well decide that art is essential and history a frill. If your goal is to be an engineer, I could understand valuing a math class over a psych class. Since different students have different purposes, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that one student's frill is another student's priority.

But the questions go deeper than that. How do we decide what it's okay for people to suck at? And when do they get to start?

In high school, I remember feeling very strongly the pressure to be "well-rounded" for the sake of my college application. I felt like I didn't have the cultural permission to suck at anything. That didn't stop me, of course -- I'm still convinced that geometry is an elaborate prank, and I can't carry a tune in a bucket -- but it didn't feel okay to admit those.

Even in college, 'distribution requirements' came across as yet another postponement of the time when I'd finally get to write off certain things. I was eager to get down to the stuff I considered important, but first I had to do penance by fulfilling various curricular requirements (including phys ed). While I understood some level of abstract argument in favor of well-roundedness, the simple fact of the matter is that I never enjoyed lab sciences. I just didn't. Call it a character flaw if you want, but it's true, and I resented having to slog through some cookbook chemistry in order to get to the stuff I actually cared about. (And yes, if science is your thing, you could flip the variables; the structure of the argument still stands.) It felt more like hazing than like education.

I worry, too, about the effects on motivation of making college students slog through courses about which they just don't care. Patience is a virtue, but real achievement comes with passion. And in an age in which the big safe structures of the past are falling down left and right, it seems to me that we should encourage idiosyncrasy at least as much as well-roundedness. Well-rounded people can do well in established structures, but they aren't the ones who'll spend fifteen hours a day on the next big breakthrough. Innovators tend not to be well-rounded; if anything, they seem generally to be a bit unbalanced. At this historical moment, we need innovators.

All of that said, though, I recognize that students may not know what they need, and that there's a valid educational purpose served in exposing them to subjects they wouldn't have sought out on their own. (Pragmatically, I'm also aware of the requirements for transfer.) Given the choice, plenty of students would probably bypass composition classes, even though most students need them pretty badly. In my teaching days, I always counted it a personal triumph when a student admitted that she took my class to fulfill a requirement, only to find that it was far more interesting than she imagined it would be. If not for the requirement, that 'aha!' moment wouldn't have happened.

My own sense is that it's reasonable to make distinctions between serious subjects and frills, as long as we recognize that the difference is more about the student than about the subject. The trick is in recognizing that difference without sliding into 'anything goes.' On the ground, we use distribution requirements to do that, which is a second-best approach that annoys nearly everybody without mortally offending anybody.

The harder part is the cultural part. At what point do we start telling students that it's okay to be awful at certain things, and why? And how do we choose what's okay to write off, as opposed to the stuff everybody should do at least passably well?

It seems that there are actually two kinds of "serious" subjects. One kind is directly related to what the student THINKS they need to make a living. The other kind provides/reinforces the general life skills the student actually needs to make a living. So, for an allied health student medical dosages is in the first category and Comp 1 is in the second.
It is unfortunately acceptable in public discourse to announce "I suck at math", almost with pride, whereas the same people would never dream of admitting "I can't read" in public.

I disagree strongly that students should be able to bypass whole subjects just because they don't like them or think they aren't relevant. A well-rounded education allows us to talk to each other as a society, to acknowledge that other fields of interest exist and to have at least an entry-level knowledge of what the important issues are in those areas. Becoming a well-rounded individual gives you choices and helps you stay flexible -- who knows what is going to be important to your career 10 years from now? To go "meta" for a moment, when you are learning how to survive classes in topic areas that aren't easy for you, you are actually learning how to learn. This is the most valuable skill you can have in a changing environment.

You have the rest of your life to become insular and idiosyncratic. School is the place to be exposed to everything at once.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think one has to earn the right to dismiss a subject as a frill. You, DeanDad, have a measure of success in your life and have earned the right to say you don't care about chemistry or geometry. Our students, quite simply, have not! The GE requirements are there for a reason, determined by people who have "paid their dues." Students need to suck it up, follow the rules, do something even if they don't like it. That is life. Success and professionalism require people to be good at things even though they don't like them.
DD, I'm surprised to hear this argument from you. In the past, you've repeatedly pointed out how dangerous it is to focus on "what is hot right now" because...well, for the exact reasons that Silent Bob critiques your post here.

It seems to me that the "idiosyncratic innovators" capable of inventing new ways of doing things are going to do that regardless of whether they have to take a few extra courses in college or not. And for the rest of us, having those extra courses enables us to keep our heads above water as the world changes.
It seems like course outcomes play a role in this too. Mama Ph.D.'s original example - middling grades in art versus math - brought to mind what we expect students to get out of courses. Some students do make a career out of art, so there needs to be a decently high standard for them. On the other hand, art courses also serve to introduce students to alternative forms of expression and give them a way to evaluate artworks. They can get that out of a course even if they lack talent in drawing/painting/et cetera. In the same way, if I can get exercise and learn to be healthy through a PE course, it doesn't matter if I'm not Mia Hamm or Shaquille O'Neal.

Math, reading and various and sundry other courses are different. I simply cannot be bad at math and still pass high school and early college courses. The content in most required math courses is pretty basic stuff that you will need to figure out the reliability of statistics in newspaper articles, whether you can afford a house, how to split the check... to live a successful life, in short.

I never became an engineer like I planned, but I am one of the most scientifically-aware people in my circle of (largely) humanities majors, and it's all because I was required to take a ton of advanced math and science courses in high school. I didn't like them, but, to be perfectly honest, I didn't like the vast majority of my classes. The knowledge has made me a much better citizen and member of society, regardless of how I felt at the time.
What amazes me is that many of the courses some students dismiss as not necessary are the ones that bring creative thinking skills (the arts) and an awareness of people or groups (humanities) other than themselves. Those are two skills that are necessary to achieve the highest status in any field or industry. For a student to dismiss art because they can not draw exhibits a lack of understanding of the field of study. When I teach I go out of my way to engage students and make them aware of how the arts is not just about being well-rounded individual.

I love this video that sort of covers this issue:
Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

I just wonder if the attitudes of educators, parents, etc. are encouraging students to think that some things are worth studying, while others are not. Attitudes towards subjects and what things are worth are coming from society, kids are just vocalizing what they are observing.
The same attitude surfaces within majors...at least within the business major. I do a lot of advising, and I frequently have students ask why they have to take statistics (or marketing or operationms management or accounting, bus everyone asks why they have to take stats; the other things depend on what they think they want to do). My tendency is to play "Won't Be Fooled Again" (by The Who, for those of you too young to remember) for them. And then explain more seriously.
This is a classic problem in the history of education, but it has become acute in higher education where variable curricula are more acceptable. We've settled on a fairly inflexible h.s. curriculum pretty much across the nation (e.g. students get approximately one elective per term every year, versus another 6 or so required courses every term).

At the college level, it's been Charles W. Eliot's Elective curriculum versus the core/great books/classical curriculum (this is a totally rough dichotomy) since the 1869-75 period when Eliot instituted the elective system at Harvard (which in reality limited required courses to only one year initially--then to only a few courses by the mid 1890s). But by the turn of the century opposition arose. And this debate has continued, only changing terms since. These days it's usually expressed as being able to choose courses that fit one's desire for a major (read: job goal) versus being coerced into experiencing the liberal arts.

But I object here primarily to the serious-versus-frills terminology. It's really about more and less appreciation. I agree with "robin" who says that you have to "earn the right" to say that you have trouble appreciating something. We---as a society---are a bit too willing to simply accede to the mere likes and dislikes of inexperienced, unchallenged youth. And this also means those in the throngs of prolonged adolescence who populate higher education. They have no substantial idea of what they "like" and "dislike" because they haven't always been exposed to quality teachers in a subject.

As a historian, I can say authoritatively that most consider the subject boring until a thoughtful teacher challenges the student on the concepts of storytelling (selection and emphasis of documents), legitimate subjectivity, the consequences of varying philosophies of history, and the residuals of history as they exist in today's structures (political and otherwise). After being exposed to historical complexity, history "suddenly" becomes vital to understanding the world around you. - TL
I agree with much of what has already been said, especially by Robin and Tim Lacy. There is a flip side to this issue of "serious" vs. "frills" that also gets ignored, particularly by college students. As a history prof, students come into my classes thinking that everyone can get an A, and without much effort. After all, it isn't a math class or anything "tough," so everyone can do it easily, right? Almost all the grade complaints I get are from students with this attitude, who only realize after they've blown off the readings and the books that no, not everyone can be good at history and that it is "easy." But when society tags a subject as a "frill," then we devalue it and make it not only unnecessary but simple enough to not need instruction. Perhaps this is connected to the continuing devaluation of a college education as a continuation of study for intellectual purposes and the increasing focus on college as a form of vo-tech education.
We stop taking the foo-foo stuff in grad school ;)

One of the interesting differences at the undergraduate level are the curriculum differences between engineers and arts & sciences.

As an engineer, 7 of my 8 terms were courses very specifically related to my major. The 8th term was 15 credits of social sciences and humanities electives. (In fact, I had no "free" electives as mechanical engineer.)

When I looked at being a math major, I was so surprised at how little math was really involved (I think 24 credit hours or something like that) compared to the rest.

I think it's *really* hard to call someone well-rounded when they only took 5 classes outside of their major. In fact, I can't recall much at all from them. So what was the purpose of taking them in the first place?

In retrospect, the one area that I wished I studied more of is economics. I'd say it's one area of my life that really affects me that I'm most ignorant about. (That said, I took macro and micro as an undergrad, I just need to study the material at a depth that exceeds that.)

As far as "serious vs frills" goes, well, from the left brained side of the house, we already have "rocks for jocks" and at my institution, we had "baby chem." Then there's algebra vs physics based physics. The engineers really didn't have much in the way of "easy A lib arts classes for non majors."
When I was a student, there were some classes I could understand being made to take - English comp, statistics, history of religion - classes that would help me be a "more well rounded person" as the saying goes. I could apply these things to some part of my life, even if not directly to my major. I appreciated being allowed to pick which class I would take to fulfill my art requirement. Dabbling can be fun.
Then there were some classes that I thought were a stretch to require - human development, environmental issues - I wasn't so sure learning how fast brains develop should be a requirement. And watching Al Gore's movie and discussing the evolution of coyotes didn't seem deep enough to me. I could have gotten that information anywhere; I'd already seen "An Inconvenient Truth."
Lastly, there were a few classes that were require which I thought were only required because no one would volunteer for that. Prime example, the philosophy of free will vs determinism. Sorry, but I'm still not seeing why that was required.
In high school, I dropped out of physics and calculus, since I thought I was a humanities person, not a STEM person. Of my collection of regrets about my education, this is easily the biggest. It hurt my college applications, yes, but mostly it reinforced my idea that there were some things I would just never be good at. Looking back as an adult, I realize that I probably could have been, definitely not wildly successful in those subjects, but at least competent enough to pass a high school class in them. I needed some study skills and time management tips, not aptitude. I wish some person with authority had sat me down and told me so, and made me sweat my way through the courses. I appreciate that I ended up in colleges (a CC and a four-year) with distribution requirements. When it came time to put up or shut up, I discovered that I wasn't as stupid as I thought I was. I didn't suddenly change my major to engineering, but it was actually a relief, and sort of a point of pride, to know I could at least get through some lower-level coursework.

In general, I don't think it's the worst thing in the world for a math major to have to sit through Art Appreciation, or for the music majors to learn a little biology once in a while. Sometimes people have to be tricked into enriching their lives.
I think what get missed in education today is everything is compartmentalized in course offerings, but in the real world there is a need to be cross curricular.

I was an engineering major in college, largely because I hated writing/language arts, turns out during my tenure as a practicing engineer more than 1/2 my time was spent writing, and the few promotions I got were based on my ability to do it well. Just the same, I want a business person to understand the conservation of energy (physics)and more specifically the idea of entropy (loss of usable energy) because of its role our society. History can/should be looked at through the lens of technological/scientific advance, the visual arts have a mathematical/geometrical basis and music is based on physics.

Our problem is not that we required students to learn in multiple disciplines, our problem is that we teach them in a box
In practice, I fear we decide what it's 'ok' for people to suck at by tradition and who has the best lobbying. Most people who express support for a 'well rounded education' would be shocked and appalled if they found out they HAD to devote an entire year of their life to excelling at auto repair, embroidery, Sanskrit, poetry and electrical circuitry. Yet why are biology, American history, Spanish, English comp ala the 5 paragraph essay and algebra sacred? Is there any reason to believe that students taking the first set of courses could not be well educated or that students taking the more canonical coursework would automatically be well rounded?

Now, there's a legitimate argument that doing things you *think* you are bad at is educational- either because you practice perseverance, or because you learn how to reassess what it means to be 'good' at something. But the fact is, education is more enjoyable and efficient for both students and teachers when it is something voluntary.
I think it's critical to give college students a place where they can choose what to study. For one thing, they are paying for it. For another, the best way to make college 'high school with ashtrays' is to make it very rigidly structured.
I think in my ideal world, a small committee of personalized advisors would assess what strengths, weaknesses, and goals each student has coming in, and help them design a personalized course of study according to that.
So much of life is slogging through things at which you are inherently medicore.

I did not learn that nearly early enough. Every B+ was a disaster. "I'm not good enough! People will think I'm stupid! I'll never get into grad school!" So instead of learning how to suck it up and do my best at things I didn't love, I stayed well within my very narrow comfort zone. It made for a nice graduating GPA, but otherwise this approach has been nothing but harmful.

So yes, I think people should be able to say, "I'm just no good at that." It is a valid statement in many cases. But I don't think that should mean they get a free pass.

The problem is, we put so much pressure on students to do-it-right-or-else. And students tie their self-worth in with their grades. Nobody wants to take the risk of being bad at something and doing it anyway. But if you can master that, you'll be 100 times more successful than the many many hopeful-eccentric-innovators who are still waiting for their big day.
The final math course that most students at the State U I teach at is called something like, "Finite mathematics" and the topics are a mishmash of:

Linear and quadratic functions
Matrix operations
Venn diagrams and set theory

While it is true that this gives, "at least an entry-level knowledge of" some of the big picture areas in mathematics, it's at such a low level that the students cannot possibly describe what "the important issues are."

Moreover, I've chatted with students a few months after that kind of course and can assure you that they seem to remember nothing except their grade.

I'm not remotely convinced that this is the right course to meet a GE requirement, but, even if we had a 'perfect' course (and a unicorn!) I can't imagine many students retaining much knowledge for more than a few weeks.

I guess I'm just not sure that I believe taking a bunch of pretty traditional courses has anything to do with 'becoming well-rounded.'

Maybe some nice interdisciplinary courses would help out, but they're also like unicorns around here.

I'm with DD in some way, I want some sort of assessable outcome. What does "well-rounded" mean, or what is a "general-life skill" that cannot be gotten in courses in your discipline?

I don't appreciate art because I had to take an art appreciation class, nor do I remember anything other than (1) my prof thought Amadeus was the best movie ever made, and (2) he was a set designed for the theater. Oh, and there was something about columns.

But, it seems like this conversation is really a stalking-horse for the larger conversation, "what's the point of a college education?" And, it's not clear that there's anything like agreement on the outcome, and I'm just talking about the discussions I have with myself.
I went to a liberal-arts based college which valued the well-rounded student; sixty out of 132 credits were liberal arts. I don't remember a thing from economics, but I was heavily impacted by philosophy, urban studies, anthropology and even acting. They made me a better designer because I had broad-based knowledge. I realize that this does not apply to every field, but in the arts the ability to interpret other ideas visually is an important skill. I see students that specialize in the creation of art without the liberal arts courses and their outcomes are weak.

I did not major in english, but my abundance of completed courses and a love of reading enabled me to get a design and marketing job in publishing. Another thing, what are we basing the importance of these courses on - that a student can use the skills right after graduation? It took at least five years and the start of a career before I realized the value of my college education.
I think that once students can buy lottery tickets and porn, they should be able to choose their own classes - they should be allowed to answer this question of what is a frill.

I've taught in two CA university systems and both had their own answer to this question - in the CSU, students have to take 51 semester units of GE. That's close to half the units of most majors, making all of our degrees essentially liberal arts degrees. Unless you get into one of the humanities honors tracks you spend most of the GE time taking classes from adjuncts who come and go with a curriculum that is so undemanding as to be insulting at times - money making for the school but of questionable value educationally in my opinion. In the UC system, the requirements vary depending on whether or not you are a BS or BA, with the BS degrees being required to take very little breadth. I took 6 quarter length GE classes in college and tested out of my English requirement and I was done. This was vastly superior to the "half your major will be in random light treatments of discipline X" approach which is forced on all CSU students.

I think we need to learn to trust students more to guide their own education - it will mean more to them if they choose it for themselves.
I'm still wondering why I had to take physics -- and I'm a science PhD. It was so incredibly badly taught that I learned nothing and remember nothing from the course except for literally guessing randomly on the final exam and still receiving a C+ in the class. I'm blaming my experience squarely on the professor because I know exactly what excellent physics teaching looks like and this was Not It.

I wonder if part of the problem is what Ivory identifies: "well-rounded" courses are often poorly designed, poorly taught, and generally treated like kitty litter...necessary but eminently disposable.
I agree with Jane above; I think part of the problem is that it's not okay to get a mediocre grade on anything, because starting in high school, you're constantly bombarded with the message that you must have a high GPA or you won't get into a good college, then you won't get a good job, or get into med school, grad school, etc. When my daughter was selecting her classes for next year, she and her classmates were being urged by counselors and teacher to only take honors classes in either humanities or science/math, that they should select which they were most interested in and would do the best in. She'll be a sophomore in high school next year. I was appalled.
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