Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Anybody wondering why students graduate with so little knowledge of history, civics, literature, the arts, and foreign languages might look at the Report of the Committee on General Education at Harvard. Comprised of faculty from across the university, the Committee was formed to examine the Core Curriculum and make recommendations for revision. (See it at http://www.fas.harvard.edu/curriculum-review/gen_ed_report_05.pdf.)
It is a strange document, and at the center is a disabling contradiction that represents well part of what’s wrong with higher education. A core curriculum is supposed to embody the knowledge that a successful student has acquired after four years of coursework. And yet, numerous times the Committee backs off from stating, or even approximating, what that knowledge should be. On the positive side, the document proposes “An increase in student choice and flexibility,” and it hopes to give “students more freedom to follow their own particular interests.” But does anybody really believe that students don’t have enough freedom when they come to college?
On the same lines, it avoids “prescribing what the breadth of knowledge should look like.” It hopes to “urge our students to try new things without prescribing that they enroll in any particular class,” and “It encourages students to take intellectual risks without requiring them to do so in prescribed ways.” How can you draft a core curriculum without prescribing something?
The recommendations the Committee does make come down to distribution requirements organized according to the standard categories: Arts and Humanities, Study of Societies, and Science and Technology—three courses in each. These might appear to provide solid breadth, but the plan leaves it up to departments to develop generalist courses for non-majors—a program that one can imagine many departments and faculty shying away from. Successful or not, though, the Committee “wants to make clear that these portal courses are not intended to introduce by stealth an alternative curriculum focused only on the traditional great books and Western Civilization courses.” By “stealth"--as if traditionalist reforms were so guilt-ridden that they must proceed under the radar. The last thing the Committee wants to do is “turn the clock back to an era in which a consensus about what all students should know was more easily reached.”
So, having drained the content out of their recommendations, the Committee comes up with something not much different from what we’ve seen in core curricula across the country—that is, where they still exist. But what such designs haven’t registered is just how little knowledge their graduates retain once they’ve left the campus. The Harvard report states that “scholars have been challenging many of the assumptions . . . about the criteria for inclusion in a list of great books and about the centrality of the West and its values.” But all the evidence shows that higher ed’s effort to broaden and “multiculturalize” student awareness has produced neither an improved understanding of our history and culture nor an improved understanding of any other civilization’s history and culture.
The Harvard report is one more band-aid that fails to address the real problem of student ignorance. It offers empty solutions to problems that have more to do with the anxieties of the professors than the needs of the students.
I would be very suprised if there were any significant non-anecdotal problems with ignorant Harvard graduates. There are other places you can go if you want study the great books tradition.
Students know far more about Shakespeare than about Newton; and they know more about Shakespeare than they do about the Great Depression. While their historical knowledge may be limited (again from anecdotal reports) and they may not be fluent in French, it’s not exactly fair to claim they lack the broad education common to the liberal arts. If anything American students are too broadly educated, sort of masters of Trivia Pursuit or Jeopardy, and lacking knowledge of calculus, logic, and advanced physics. Compared to most european students they are linguistic primitives e--the bright Gymnasium student generally fluent in English, French as well as German by 20 or so. But who is to blame for all that? I suggest it is American school boards and Education Inc.--they want Johnny and Mary to be engineers and doctors, and yet only a few manage to obtain the techniques, and perhaps the attaining of the Technik in calculus or chemistry comes at the expense of the Latin or German or historical knowledge. I for one support Huxley and the scientific modernists over Arnold and the Klassics; agree with CP Snow, yet American education has failed to produce even the scientifically-competent faction of the Two Culture divide, at least in comparison to Asia and Europe. The public high schools of the USA are not really about education, anyways, except for the rich kids who band together in geek squads--it’s about sex and violence, athletics and teacher’s lounges full of cynics, Sarge-like jocks, and sapphic Schoolmarmies. Columbine is everywhere. Gregor Samsa High, ‘79.
Might I ask whether the problem of student ignorance might rest closer to home? We had a post a couple of days ago wherein John Holbo makes it clear that much of his literary interest is in reading cute stuff about Duckie’s brain—and this is in the context of a post a couple of days earlier (by an English prof whose prose is as close to unreadable as it gets) who is, in effect, suggesting that posts in an on line forum like The Valve on subjects like Duckie’s brain should be eligible for tenure research credit. A most damaging pair of posts, it seems to me as an informed observer.
I have more to say on this at http://mthollywood.blogspot.com/2006/01/more-guardians-of-our-literary-culture.html but I would say that English profs who post, or who wink and chuckle, about Duckie’s brain may bear some level of responsibility for student ignorance. How am I in error here?
It seems possible that John Holbo’s interest in a book about “Duckie’s brain” might reveal less about his literary sensibility than his duties as a parent.
Evidence might be found in the fact that he refers to reading the book aloud “with success”—that last phrase then being linked to a photograph of a small, sleeping child, of roughly the age one would associate with stories about ducks.
This is, admittedly, just a guess.
Professor Bauerline seems to assume that college and a liberal arts education are identical terms. I teach at an Ivy League institution where the majority of the students come for career training, not for access to a shared culture.
If the concern is that colleges are failing students in training them to be good citizens of a democracy, you’ll have to then do more work to prove why a citizen needs to know anything about Shakespeare or organic chemistry to vote for a mayor or a President, to sit on a jury, and so on.
I agree with Prof. Bauerline that the Harvard recommendations are watered-down: the committee needed to be perceived as taking action and, in taking action, changed nothing.
But the conversation about issues like core curricula generally fail to take into account the way colleges work as institutions, especially when it comes to funding. Big alumni grants go to (certain) individual departments; funding within the institution is often tied to course enrollment; and departments want to be independent, to be able to set their own curricula for their majors. Core requirments shift enrollments around, but at the expense of enrollment within those students’ majors.
For example, my university has a general writing class requirment for all students. Several departments, including business and engineering, resent this requirment, because they bring in a lot of money and resent losing control over their students’ curricula. The English department loves the writing requirment, because it funds our grad students and increases overall enrollment in English courses. They get to expand their program—not because they brought in that bigtime alumni money, like the business school or the engineering programs, but because they made an appeal to “liberal arts” type thinking (even as the English department itself isn’t very Arnoldian, to say the least). The business school doesn’t need to increase their enrollments, because they get tons of outside money.
So “[a]nybody wondering why students graduate with so little knowledge of history, civics, literature, the arts, and foreign languages” should also look to the way departments are funded. I could be wrong, but it’s rarely the Humanities departments that resist distribution requirments. Many English programs, for example, already have language and history requirments. It’s often the departments that bring in tons of outside money that object (and it’s often the students in these more pre-professional programs who object to taking classes outside their majors). It would be great if more schools distributed all outside money equally. But of course, Whitey Mayflower won’t donate $10,000,000 unless he gets that new computer lab in the business school named for him—and that won’t happen if his donation is spread evenly across the various departments.
Moriarty is quite right about science knowledge among young Americans, as every international comparison shows. But he overestimates the humanities knowledge among college students, which has always been low, but what has recently been added is a new attitude toward liberal education, that being that if it doesn’t contribute directly toward the workplace, it’s worthless.
Joe implies that Harvard students don’t suffer these problems, but in surveys of cultural attitudes and habits, including reading, higher income and education level populations showed the same downward direction as lower levels did.
But apart from the trends, we should ask the question of exactly what knowledge the professors at Harvard and elsewhere believe that students must have when they leave college. The Harvard document is clear on how the “approaches to knowledge” strategy, which substitutes various modes of “critical thinking” for content knowledge has been a failure, leaving students more ignorant than ever before. But they can’t take the next step and actually stand up for certain knowledge with conviction and prescription.
Finally, Luther rightly indicates why different departments have different attitudes toward core curricula, and we should investigate funding sources. But his point about citizenship is too narrow. Citizenship in a democracy assumes a form of activity and knowledge that dictatorships and kingdoms do not. Democracy requires that citizens be vigilant guardians of their own rights and watchdogs of government. That means they must know about civic life and historical events, and they must read a lot, and widely. De Tocqueville saw this first hand, noting that while America had no high culture, it had an intense reading culture, and that was one reason for the early republic’s success.
Scott McLemee, I’m wondering, if John Holbo posts here about Duckie’s brain because it’s related to his duties as a parent, do you think it’s approprite for him to post about toilet training here as well?
Well, John Bruce, that would be quite a stretch, now, wouldn’t it? Let’s look at context again.
There had been some earlier discussion here of stories for children, including one entry that had something to do with Hans Christian Andersen. That would make a reference to Duckie’s Brain not wildly appropriate or bizarrely incongruous. While mentioning toilet training would be, or so it might seem.
The topic of Duckie’s Brain and the decline of Western Civilization has now exhausted its interest, at least for me.
That should have been “not wildly inappropriate,” of course, of course, in parallel with “bizarrely incongruous.”
I consider myself rather an expert on toilet training at this point, if anyone has any questions. One of the tedious entailments of the (inevitably imperfect) practice is cleaning up a lot of messes that others leave where they wouldn’t if they were a bit more adult. I should say the relevence to blogging is manifest. In that spirit: John Bruce, you have posted your link, may you have many happy returns of it, traffic-wise. As to the substance of your post, I am very sorry that ‘whimsy’ is a closed book to you, as is ‘irony’ - not to mention ‘argument’ and ‘reading’. The shelf veritably groans. But I don’t see that this is my fault. Nor is it Mark’s fault. It is hard for me to put this point in a way that will not send you running, in vain, to those books you cannot open, but here goes: silly comments are appropriate unto silly posts. For the sweet love of ludicrousness, please post any sustained critiques of Duckie’s Brain to my Duckie’s Brain post. Mark is trying to have an adult discussion here.
Here are some links to consider: