Academic Changes: Good & Bad

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One of the many academic journals I receive is the Intercollegiate Review. It is published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I believe they have been publishing this journal since 1953 — but I could be wrong. The institute is pretty conservative. Case in point: The above issue that just arrived on my campus desk ran a piece on the changing tide of academic studies. The author noted that schools — particularly universities — once served as the model for academic excellence. Students sought to be more well-rounded. They had a greater investment in their education and were intellectually curious. Thus, it was not unheard of for a business major to study the American Revolution; psychology majors took courses in the studies of Shakespeare and Milton; future politicians thumbed through the King James Bible. I will admit, I agree with the author in that a tide has shifted students away from being seekers to just being done. A few years ago, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Houston Christian’s National Honor Society Induction Ceremony. In my speech, I stated that W.E.B. Du Bois used the term “the talented tenth” to describe the likelihood of one in ten blacks becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change. He believed they needed an education to reach their true destiny as what would in the 20th century be called public intellectuals. Du Bois stated:

We shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools — intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it — this is the curriculum of that Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.

I do sense that society has shifted away from training people to be thinkers; in truth, it appears that we are training people to make money. And, I suspect that is the direction of the modern economy. Here is where I disagree with the premise of the article: It blamed the radicalism of the 1960s for destroying the traditional cannon of knowledge taught on campuses across the country. It ridiculed the notion that single-sex schools vanished. Now, in this new age, schools are teaching courses on gender and sexuality. Race and culture courses now dominate history, English, and political science departments. I suspect the author feels that the academy should reflect the white man theory on education. Forget about changing demographics and pluralism. Though the author makes a number of great points…as I noted above, I feel the attack on changing group dynamics as reflected in academic curricula is silly.

Here are a few courses being taught at various universities that the author took aim at:

Yale University — Humanities and Arts Requirement: US Lesbian and Gay History          

University of Texas — Science Requirement: Animal Sexuality

College of Holy Cross — Religion Requirement: Gardens and World Religions

I must point out that I do not know if the above courses are really required; I am simply stating what I read in this journal piece. I would not be shocked to learn that this is all for shock value.

I would love to get your thoughts on this.

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10 thoughts on “Academic Changes: Good & Bad

  1. I’m being courted by a private school that bills itself as giving a “classical liberal arts education.” As a part of the curriculum, the kids read primary sources from the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Homer, and Thomas Paine. There’s a focus on the role of Christianity in the development of Western culture. When I asked about the books students read in the literature classes, the most modern author mentioned was Mary Shelley.

    I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I wish *I* had a better understanding of the classics. I believe that I would have a better understanding of our systems and the foundations of our collective thinking if I had more facility with the folks I call “the men in marble.”

    On the other hand, though, I think it’s important – and vitally so – to have a strong grasp of modern writers and thinkers. Our society and our culture have undergone tremendous changes, even in our own lifetime. While I don’t think that makes the marble men obsolete or irrelevant, I think that we’re best served by finding a balance between classical and modern studies. My plan, if I’m offered (and if I accept) the job, is to try to drag some more modern material into the curriculum; I think it will be a good exercise for the students to ponder what Aristotle would have to say about The Matrix; there’s some value in that kind of thinking.

  2. Mrs. Chili:

    I am curious about this new possibility. I can see you fitting the bill very well with this type of philosophy. But as you stated, modern thinkers are so paramount when it comes to reflecting the current issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Not that those problems did not exist in the classical age, but that world looked very different. I do feel that the classics must be taught; I am fairly well read on some of the classics. I love the thought of teaching a course in a fashion that you will ask students to ponder modern realities in the age of Aristotle.

    I teach the Cave Allegory every year. It is an excellent piece in delving into the notion of fear and ignorance.

  3. I agree 100% with Mrs. Chili. I would like to understand the Classics better and how we got to where we are now. And, our world continues to change and quite a few things have happened of importance since Mary Shelley that our children will be engaging whether we like it or not. I try to be aware of aspects of my life where I attempt to hang on too tightly to the past. As one gets older it gets more difficult and calls for constant vigilance and self awareness. Wasn’t it Socrates who said “Know Thyself” or was it some one else?

  4. Every semester, I tell my students that if we don’t make them better critical thinkers, we should give them their tuiton money back.

    Critical thinking means being exposed to ideas that you don’t necessary accept but are willing to think about. You can’t avoid that if you read the classics.

  5. The cost (time and money) of a liberal arts education can only be borne by those from a class which enables them to do so. The masses want to eat, and an educational system that spends time on the nuances of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works doesn’t contribute to that. Liberal arts are a luxury. As with all luxuries they’re nice to have, but worthless without fundamental needs.

    Education isn’t structured toward the median student. Our system was created and is maintained by those who excelled in education, not necessarily in marketable skills. In short, our educational system is designed to breed more educators, not productive workers.

    The problem is education’s consumers desire an education that will help them eat. Liberal arts are great, but we are giving a Rolls Royce to those who live in a land without roads.

    The good news is I believe practical and challenging can go hand-in-hand. Perhaps critical thinking can be gleaned from business case studies (or better yet running a real business) in lieu of 12th century Gaelic poetry or anthropological discourses on early Easter Island cultures.

  6. An addendum to the above is I’m concerned about class distinction in subjects. Arcane does not equal better. Recently I heard a professor of philosophy extol the virtues of his field and indeed his own IQ. When questioned about those with other gifts he admitted he was hopelessly confused if he looked under the hood of a car.

    Most of us are the same way to same way to some degree. A lot of people with advanced degrees would never have graduated from high school had they been forced to take auto mechanics. Unfortunately some look down on those who are tremendously gifted in that much-needed field, but weren’t inspired to even peruse the Cliff Notes of Twelfth Night.

    Academics excel because they played by rules made by those like them. Auto mechanics aren’t designing the educational system. Playing with a stacked deck is always the easiest way to win.

  7. Bryan, you might like the book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the Value of Work.” I’ve been meaning to read it. Saw an interview and have read about it. The author has a liberal arts degree if I recall correctly and worked at a Thinktank for a while before working in and starting a motor cycle repair shop. I’m thankful I first attended a small, religious liberal arts college for my bachelor’s that exposed me to many things that today might seem impractical. (The same one as Edward though probably before he was even born). The school is usually ranked high by conservatives in comparison with other Southern Private Liberal Arts Schools. Afterwards, I subsequently moved successfully through several state schools in applied science and engineering. I think I’ve seen both sides and value them both. And yes, looking back I wish I had taken the opportunity to take a shop class in high school. It would have served me well. Mentors later helped me in that regard eventually. I now have my own business and yet I would be happy to learn more about Gaelic poetry and other things like that too.

  8. I think education in general is in a transitional stat: The age of online courses and the notion of instant gratification will create a cultural shift. It seems that folks are no longer interested in ideas. Why take or even major in art when it will not grant fame or fortune. It could. Be there is a greater chance that it will not. I do believe people become doctors to solve problems and help the sick. But in truth, I suspect many seek wealth; and at the cost of a medical degree on top of an undergrad degree, it is hard to argue.

    In the end, few people read critical works of literature. We live in a world that has been brought closer together thanks to technology and the net; yet, we are a world of small minded people. We are very intolerant people who show an ever growing sense of disdain towards those who do not share their religious beliefs, share their social norms, or who are in-line with a shared thought of ideology. Universities have tuition rates that far exceed the natural rate of inflation. And why? So that many of them can watch their endowment grow.

    Bryan and Steve present a number of compelling arguments. But, Steve, it is sad that we have pushed education to a point in that we tell people their is no place for shop. And I will admit, I am not a fan of home economics. That is too cold war; it was geared for domestic obligations. That said, I like how home economics has transformed into a greater real of the social sciences in what we now call consumer science. But, will those student be interested in ideas outside of just finding a job?

  9. That sounds like an interesting read Steve. I’d like to check it out. And yes, I confess to being a lover of liberal arts, but also a lover of being able to eat. Perhaps caveat emptor is the first lesson of higher ed.

    On another note, Eddie makes an interesting point about doctors. This is a major tangent, but what if med school required only two years of pre-reqs, the usual entry exams and interviews, and then was free at state schools? It makes no sense for citizens to pay twice for health care. We fund med schools to some degree and then pay when we use the services of those we’ve educated. That’s an oversimplification, but the easiest way to cut health costs is to start with medical education.

    • I know a little about med school costs, my younger son is in his 3rd year at one. The cost is so great I told him we could not help other than we took on his undergrad loan, which wasn’t large. Upon entering college, he would tell people that he was interested in something in the health field. It was two spring break medical missions to Guatemala that focused his desire on being a doctor.

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