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).