Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Serious Subjects vs. 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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 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 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
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.
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.
Linear and quadratic functions
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 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'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 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.