Greg Petsko has written a marvelous criticism of the decision by a university President to eliminate departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts. It's part of his regular column in Genome Biology. Read it at: An open letter to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany.
Several bloggers have discussed the letter.1 Petsko is defending a traditional liberal education that includes literature and language and I agree with the gist of what he is saying. However, I wish we could have more of a conversation about "liberal science" instead of always referring to "liberal arts." It's not enough to insist that every student be exposed to philosophy and literature—they must also be exposed to science or you can't say that they are getting a truly liberal education. And I'm not just talking about a token science course for humanities students called "Astronomy for Dummies."
But let's leave that conversation for another time. I want to discuss another issue. Here's what Petsko said,
Let's examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I'm sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn't have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn't required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy: humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences, and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it's because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs - something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.My university is run by spineless faculty who think that we should structure the university according to what the students want to take. We are evolving into a university that promotes a wide range of options and degrees that have no major focus of study. This is all in the names of "breadth," "diversity," and "interdisciplinary." It's the smörgåsbord approach to education.
Young people haven't, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it's hard for most people.
The problem with Petsko's analysis is that the very faculty he assumes to possess the "wisdom" to set curricula are the ones promoting student choice and abrogating responsibility—at least at the University of Toronto.
So, here's the question: Should universities be mandating required courses in order to assure a minimal standard of liberal education or should we be allowing students to choose whatever courses they are interested in taking?2
1. John Pierot [Knowing Ways] thinks that humanities represent a different way of knowing. Jerry Coyne also has a humanities background [Keeping the humanities alive].
2. Knowing full well that some students will often choose courses on the basis to expected grades rather than interest.