Saturday, November 20, 2010

Can Undergraduates Select Courses?

 
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.

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.
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.

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.

14 comments :

  1. I was amused by Petsko's comment about humanities having low enrollment, since I live in a country where the opposite is true: Ireland. The "free fees"* system here has led to a generation of young people who were encouraged to go to university without knowing what they wanted to do. Humanities graduates outweigh the Sciences by about 2:1.

    In my case, I studied Engineering, and am now wondering whether I could have benefited from a "liberal" education in the sense you use. I'm an older "mature" student, however, and have done a lot of reading reading in my own time, so I'm hardly bereft of a "liberal education" in the usual sense. If there is going to be a drive for teaching the Humanities to all students, I would want to see it limited to Freshman / 1st year, alongside general Science courses for all (as you say). After that it's time to put away the toys, choose a field of study, and get serious.

    I don't know the American system very well, but I get the impression that undergraduate "college" years are not handled all that seriously, and the "real study" only starts once you enter a graduate "university" institution e.g. Harvard College vs. Harvard Law. Considering what it costs per year, is it wise for it to take that long before you are expected to know anything? 8-)

    * note the quotes: tuition is nominally free for first degrees, but universities claw much of it back through "registration" fees on top of their funding, and then there are other expenses such as living costs that hit students hard.

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  2. pI don't see it as an either/or question. There absolutely has to be a very strong core of required subjects, that is to be taken in the first 2-2.5 years. But then there is also a lot to be gained from taking advanced courses in the last 2 years, and there it probably isn't a good idea to limit student's options.

    Of course, no rigid program, no amount of freedom in choosing courses, and no combination of those, no matter how perfectly set up, can help if the students don't want to learn. And that's the more general problem and it can't be solved within universities...

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  3. I don't see it as an either/or question. There absolutely has to be a very strong core of required subjects, that is to be taken in the first 2-2.5 years. But then there is also a lot to be gained from taking advanced courses in the last 2 years, and there it probably isn't a good idea to limit student's options.

    Of course, no rigid program, no amount of freedom in choosing courses, and no combination of those, no matter how perfectly set up, can help if the students don't want to learn. And that's the more general problem and it can't be solved within universities...

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  4. "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?"

    This is not an easy question to answer. The good questions rarely are. I recently left a University that created a mandatory liberal arts distribution of requirements, heavy on the humanities. Those of us in the sciences expressed concern that our majors would lose opportunities to take science courses that would allow them to explore their chosen discipline in greater depth within the four years of a bachelor's degree. Others were worried that their majors may not be able to fit in all their program requirements and required courses for the graduate and professional schools to which their students would matriculate in the four year degree. We proposed various exceptions for these pre-professional programs while compromising on the basic science majors. We were shot down by the majority humanities faculty and their allies in math who claimed we were pushing the university to become a "trade school". Many of us saw through their rhetoric to recognize that they clearly were more worried about not being able to expand their departments given static or decreasing enrollments than about how well we were educating our students for their chosen paths in life.

    Personally, I would argue that students ought to be required to follow a core curriculum set by the faculty and corresponding to the students' majors with a range of other courses about which faculty can argue the distribution. With regard to that discussion, outside of the major core curriculum,I think students should be free to choose their courses and if this means that some disciplines shrink, so be it. If they regret their decision later, then they will have learned a valuable lesson that perhaps they will share with their children.

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  5. I think this is treated too much like an all-or-nothing issue. Of course there has to be a core group of mandatory courses (something my university seems to be chopping away at), and this core group should be fairly broad (eg. cell biologists should know basics of evolution and evolutionary biologists should remind themselves cells exist – neither of which is happening very much, both at undergrad and professional levels). On the other hand, encouraging people to branch out is nice too – some of the best courses I've taken were my arts electives. (can't for the life of me understand why students whine about mandatory arts credits requirement – shouldn't they be happy to learn something new and different from usual?)

    Too much course freedom makes the courses too self-contained, and there's only so much one can learn in three months. Furthermore, since understanding takes a lot longer than three months, the courses focus too much on cramming information instead. Sorry, but memorising a couple signalling pathways tells you fuck-all about how cell biology really works. But there's no time to go into conceptual and theoretical stuff because the shared common background is very weak, so the course is condemned to superficiality.

    But a bit of freedom is nice too; I absolutely loved taking linguistics courses and am fascinated by language evolution; most people could care less. On the other hand, someone might love classical architecture or anthropology or something – which I would love to learn about too, but would prefer a more solid background in linguistics as my elective. I wouldn't have been able to do that if the course structure was too rigid.

    Lastly, ironically considering all the fanfare about the importance of interdisciplinary work, you're pretty much screwed if you actually want to do that. And neither freedom-emphasising systems nor the more traditional structured programs actually make an interdisciplinary background an easy thing to attain. I'm not allowed to take evolution courses for my cell biology electives (and vice versa), but those courses don't count towards breadth requirements either – thus, it's almost a waste of money to take them, as far as your degree is concerned. That's just awful. Making both components mandatory would enable one to get a wide background – but not to as much detail as some may want from their chosen fields.

    So yeah, I don't know.

    Some undergrads clearly aren't qualified to make course decisions, but then again, most of them won't stay in science, so why does it matter?

    And there should be some opportunities for undergrads to design their own courses too (limited at one for the degree, of course) – coordinating a student directed seminar on non-biological evolution was a simply amazing experience! But we're apparently the only school in Canada with a Student Directed Seminar program; though UofT is rumoured to consider catching up ;p (I may be wrong on both counts though)

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  6. Watch out Phoenix University, SUNY Albany is breathing down your neck. And I do mean down.

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  7. I was an undergrad at SUNY Albany. Its pretty shocking that they would eliminate some of the courses (Russian, maybe, but Classics and Theatre Arts?). They also eliminated their graduate Geology program. The school has also grown tremendously since I was a student, I was there recently and there are a lot more buildings on campus, they received a lot of money to make things like a 'thin film / microtechnology/ center', and also they spent a lot of money makeing very nice, modern, apartment like dorms (they already had older apartment dorms on campus too).

    I really don't think that the decision had anything to do with academics, it was purely business, I do not think that they were trying to engage in discussion on 'student choice versus core curricula'.

    As far as that issue itself, it really goes to what a degree means right? If you let students take whatever they want, well, thats more like a trade school program. And trade schools are excellent for learning trades. So are apprenticeships.

    Most people that I know who weren't really interested in any particular major and basically just took courses on their own, they ended up with degrees in things like communications, pyschology, and sociology. None of them are reporters, social workers, psychologists, etc. They didn't really get much from college, other than a paper degree and the 'experience'.

    So from what I can see, more choice means less worth (which is really the opposite of what we expect). What are these students expecting from college? No one expects a 'Universal Education', which is what core curricula are all about.

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  8. We need more philosophy classes. You have a whole cadre of scientists who cannot think and reason dialectically.

    It is shame just how few courses in philosophy of Biology exist - the best is probably at Duke university.

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  9. @Schenk: "The school has also grown tremendously since I was a student, I was there recently and there are a lot more buildings on campus, they received a lot of money to make things like a 'thin film / microtechnology/ center', and also they spent a lot of money makeing very nice, modern, apartment like dorms (they already had older apartment dorms on campus too)."

    A lot of schools are accumulating and emphasizing large capital budgets over operating budgets. Their campuses appear like the love children of high-tech industrial complexes and fancy suburban malls. Public/private partnerships, with heavy emphasis on private start-ups but no education is all the rage these days. I think that this is a consequence of stacking boards with businessmen and women rather than with actual community. Often the members of the university's board will be the owners of the companies contracted to construct the buildings, install the HVAC systems, run the networks and so on. It has become a system of reverse patronage in which the rich use the university to expand their wealth and prominence rather than to improve the school or advance its mission.

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  10. Part of the problem is that some students (and parents of students) think of a college education as vocational school. That's much more true of graduate school; a grad student is studying the subject that will likely be the focus of his or her career. An undergraduate education should be about getting educated - by which I mean gaining an understanding of how the world is, and how it got to be that way. Clearly this requires science, mathematics and liberal arts as areas of study. A major subject is useful as a step towards a career, but it is secondary to the purpose of undergraduate work.

    I went to Columbia as an undergraduate, and Columbia has for many years had what I consider to be a reasonable, albeit partial, solution to this issue: a core curriculum required of all undergrads. The weak spot in this curriculum was, and is, the sciences and math. Most university professors would consider someone who is unfamiliar with the works of Shakespeare or Plato to be poorly educated. But it seems to me that anyone unfamiliar with the ideas of differential and integral calculus - surely the best ideas of the seventeenth century - is also poorly educated. Similarly for evolution, the best idea of the nineteenth century. Even if your life's work will have nothing to do with mathematics or science, you cannot really understand the world without understanding these and similar ideas.

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  11. Students can't and don't know what's good for them and what real education in particular field is. Letting them chose leads to all kind of crapola. I am tired of biochemistry graduate students who have never taken statistics or real physical chemistry. Teaching biochemistry to people who have never heard of Gibbs free energy is basically a waste of time. And that appears to happen more as a rule than an exception.

    Now, my opinion is shaped by my experience. Where I was, we had no choice of classes (other than facultative ones). At all. My only choice was a major. At a time I, like ALL other students, felt that we have way too many useless courses that are nothing but fillers. Now, decades later, I am grateful for being at some point in time forced to have a broad curriculum of everything from botany and invertebrate zoology to basic quantum mechanics. Because all this "rubbish" we were forced-fed, it turned out to be very useful. No way students could have had enough wisdom to see so much ahead and realize just how important is to have a broad and balanced basic education. Designing such a curriculum is a MAJOR challenge. Anyone who thinks that your average 17-20 years old even can form something comparable on his own is simply living in the Dreamland.

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  12. Maybe you will enjoy this video from

    The Educated Imagination:A Website Dedicated to Northrop Frye: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/

    http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/11/17/video-of-the-day-i-am-going-to-grad-school-in-english/

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  13. Unfortunately Humanities in the contemporary American university doesn't resemble the Humanities that Petsko defends. Most humanities departments are in thrall to a crowd of obscure French philosophers. As a result, the courses are heavy on "theory" to the extent of literature, and what passes for scholarship is apoor aping of the sciences and (part of) historical research.

    Humanists, it's your own damn fault you're irrelevant.

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  14. There's no set answer to what is an adequate liberal education, and no way to get an incredibly broad range without either extending the time spent in the degree -- and thus driving up those student loans -- or taking out courses that are relevant and useful for the degree program itself.

    Now, in my first degree, I took Computer Science. I had to take various math and computing courses, in order to get the broad view. But I also had to take some electives. In first year, I could either take business -- which was required for the business stream, which I was not in and had no interest in -- or a non-science elective (I think). I took Russian. I also had to take a science elective. I took Physics.

    Second year, I had a choice between a science or a business elective. I took Astrophysics.

    I also had free electives. The courses I took in them were two English courses (one on famous English authors, one on Comedy and Satire), two Geography courses (one on political and territorial issues and one on more environmental issues), and two Interdisciplinary courses (one on environmental and social issues, and one on forecasting).

    That's a fairly broad focus, and doesn't count the Philosophy I got later as a second degree. But these were all courses I wanted to take.

    Having free electives is, in fact, a good thing. It can spawn interests in different areas and even changes of degrees. Forcing people to take a certain set of courses to get a real, liberal education makes little sense to me.

    I also disagree that calculus is required for a true liberal education. I had to take it. I am not good at it. I had little interest in it. And I don't use it. It made sense for Computer Science, but is a waste of time for someone in a Philosophy program ...

    Finally, why can't people learn the extra things on their own? Wouldn't it be better to make them want to learn instead of forcing it upon them even when they don't like it?

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