EducationHigher EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Sausage factory

With a title like that, you may have thought I was going back to School of Doubt’s winning strategy of discussing penises, but actually I was reading a movie review by William Deresiewicz in The Chronicle about a documentary Ivory Tower that stated:

College, as the movie points out, was always treated as a black box: 18-year-olds were inserted at one end, 22-year-olds came out the other, and as long as the system appeared to be working, no one bothered to inquire what happened in between.

and the sausage making adage came springing to mind.  The article goes on to describe how many Americans buy into common tropes about academia, like students take a lot of useless classes, the faculty do nothing but strut in front of these time and money wasters and are grossly overpaid for it (I wish…), that the classes don’t provide students with any real skills, etc.

It got me thinking about core classes, where students are required to take some set of classes unrelated to their major in most colleges and universities.  The requirements may be as narrowly defined as a set of classes spelled out in every detail to simply a number of credits that must be outside the department of the major field of study.

The reason for these core classes is usually stated as providing a “well-rounded” education.  I’d bet though that these courses are the source of many of the conceptions described above, such as useless classes, that they don’t directly benefit the student, that they’re just money makers.  The review goes on to discuss how the “new” education, like MOOCs and un-colleging, is becoming more popular in the face of these conceptions.  The movie, we’re told, tries to correct the more erroneous of these conceptions and the review focuses a lot on the debt many students collect as they go through college.  It mentions how a college degree is required for most white collar jobs now.  Deresiewicz sees the idea of a college education as more than job training though:

Far more dangerous for the future of higher education […] is the way in which these schemes impoverish our idea of what college ought to be about in the first place.

The review describes some examples of what that idea is, from professors and students, including mental and spiritual growth, and learning to lead lives of meaning.

The thing is, I remember very clearly that every one of my courses, whether related to my major or not, provided me with something.  I went out of my way to choose a variety of courses, and I did, even at the large state school I went to where the core requirements was x credits outside my major, manage to come out with a well-rounded education.  I also ended up with debt that I paid off fairly quickly once I was gainfully employed, using the skills learned in my major AND in those other courses.  Granted, at a state school at the time, that debt was not as large as many students today will face.  My education, with those “extra” courses, was certainly worth it to me though and I am still glad to have done it.

Perhaps my students in the required core science class don’t see the gains they make in understanding science and critical thinking as they work through the course they really didn’t want to take.  But I do.  I also see my science majors improve in their writing and their understanding of the ramifications of current events as they take their literature and history requirements.

So, here’s the question: is the core set of courses required by most colleges and universities useful or a waste of time and money for our students?  Is the sausage that comes out worth it?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.


  1. June 29, 2014 at 5:47 pm —

    Huh… Well, I went to one of those that ran only 3 years, was focused on a carrier (supposedly) and came out of it with no more understanding of the field, in terms of what I wanted to learn, than I did going in, and way too much useless, out of date, knowledge about how companies pored useless data into one end of a computer system, and got useless financial reports out of the other. I bloody wish I had something more rounded, maybe I could have found something else I enjoyed, instead of ending up at a grocery store, because, it turns out, the “degree” I got was next to useless for “entry” into the industry, and was pretty much only worth anything if you where already in it, and some higher up thought you needed a degree to actually know what your where doing, so you could advance.

    In all honesty, the real problem seems to be that we fail students before they even get to the college. We try to well round them, not to mention fix their misconceptions, during the first two years they are there, just so they come out the other end, hopefully, actually comprehending the subject they went in for, never mind anything else. This is the number one complaint from professors, especially in things like the sciences. We assume kids are too stupid to learn/understand the “hard stuff”, so we give them what one author I recently read, “Lies for children”. Simplified, and wholly inadequate versions of how the world works, which if one of them actually has an interest in the subject, they hopefully do what I did and read a mess of stuff, to learn what is really going on. Only, most of them never do that. They learn the “lies for children” version, maybe, or.. they don’t even manage that, then when they hit college, they suddenly find that the field they are studying is nothing at all like the simplistic version they got handed, perhaps even just one year earlier.

    Now consider this is being done to dang near every subject, including probably history. What, without at least “some” attempt to correct this, i.e., provide a “rounded education”, do you end up with, coming out the other end? Hint: if it was sausage, odds are good it would never see a deli counter, or, if it did, the CDC and FDA, and who knows what else would shut the place down so fast it wouldn’t even be funny.

    We have too few “un-rounded” people as it is. The prospect of a world where everyone is going to a three year college, and the difference between their “chosen subject” and the rest of their knowledge looks less like, “expert in one, vaguely competent in everything else”, than “vaguely competent in one vs. village idiot in everything else”, doesn’t exactly encourage me to hold high hopes for the future. After all, I went through one of the places that promised to cut out all the nonsense, in favor of “education directed at a goal”. I have learned more, on damn near every subject, via places like freethoughts blog, to my own reading on my chosen subject, to badly written articles in science mags (from way back before high school), than I ever got out of a) grade/high school, or b) the expensive con described as, “a degree without all the other stuff you don’t need.”

    So, no, I would vote for, “Keep it rounded.”, if for no other reason than that there is zero motivation, as it is, for either pre-college educators, never mind the students, to totally fail at teaching said student jack all about anything, including the subject they eventually take college courses for. The whole point is to have people who know enough, in principle, to not be total morons, when confronted with a subject they don’t know well, which could be anything from bloody solar power, to, ironically, how sex actually works, or just how to count bloody change without having to consult a 4th grade text book. How is streamlining the process, so they learn even less on every other subject than they already do a benefit to anyone, other than those who would use their ignorance to drive their own greed, or political campaigns? Do we really need even more people that know, for example, how a computer works, but think that it sounds plausible that the vegetable extract of this week will cure cancer? I think we have more than enough of that sort of terrible failure, and maybe the lies for children need to stop **much** earlier than they do. Then, we can talk about if colleges need to teach other things – after we make sure the people going there are not totally clueless, about nearly everything, including what they planned to study.

  2. June 30, 2014 at 6:09 pm —

    I had the privilege to attend a good 4-year liberal arts college. At the time I admit I resented my general education classes, because they took away time from studying science. Looking back, though, not one class was a wasted class. It sounds exactly like the cheesy description in college promotional materials, but those gen-ed classes really did expose me to ideas I would never in a million years have gone reading about on my own. And I really did find odd connections to other bits and pieces about the world. And the class that I resented most? I ended up doing some semi-serious reading on my own from the library about the general topic, and still learned quite a bit.

    I’ve noticed in my own teaching that I pull in noticeably many words, allusions, and ideas that my students, or even other professors, don’t know. Just little things, like what Q.E.D. at the end of a proof means. But little things add up.

    So as an undergraduate, I would have said get rid of general education requirements. Now I would say absolutely keep them. Because the more connections you can make between all branches of study, the richer your world-picture becomes.

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