My personal sense of it is that the distinction between core and periphery is largely a function of purpose. If your goal in life is to be an exhibited artist, then you might well decide that art is essential and history a frill. If your goal is to be an engineer, I could understand valuing a math class over a psych class. Since different students have different purposes, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that one student’s frill is another student’s priority.
But the questions go deeper than that. How do we decide what it’s okay for people to suck at? And when do they get to start?
I agree with this to a point, but the big problem is something the Dean Dad brings up briefly a few paragraphs later: Students often have radically divergent ideas about what’s essential for their prospective professions. This probably doesn’t turn up that much at the administrative level, but it looms very large for those of us in departments that do a lot of “service” teaching. The bulk of the students we see in class are (or think they are) engineering majors, mostly in their first year of college, with the next largest group being students who are (or think they are) going to go to medical school. While both groups have their positive features, their misguided expectations about what is essential can be really hard to deal with.
This problem is particularly acute in the engineering classes, because they tend to be first-year students. The way the engineering curriculum is set up, they’ve usually taken one project-based class in Engineering before they get to physics, and that’s it.
This leads to some violent collisions between the fantasy image they have of what engineering is, and what the physics and engineering faculty know as reality. I’ve gotten countless comments of the form “I don’t know why he graded my grammar, I’m an engineer not an English major” over the years. I always wish I could send those students a note ten years later, and ask them “How’d that no-grammar thing work out for you?”
Lately, since we’ve switched to the Matter and Interactions curriculum, which includes some VPython assignments simulating the motion of simple systems, I’ve seen similar complaints about the computer programming. “The VPython stuff was completely useless and totally irrelevant. I’m going to be an engineer, not a computer programmer!” Both this and the writing comment tend to make the engineering faculty snort with derision.
The problem is, most of these students don’t have the foggiest idea what engineering actually entails. They mostly seem to know what they get from career aptitude tests in their high school guidance offices: engineers need to be good at math, and they get paid a lot of money. The notion that, say, systematic thought and clarity of expression might play a role in writing project proposals and reports doesn’t occur to them.
For the most part, they get this attitude beaten out of them by the engineering faculty in their sophomore and junior years, and that works out because the people doing the beating are professionals in the discipline they intend to major in. When an engineering professor tells them that written reports are important, they grumble, but they believe it. When somebody from a department without “engineering” in the title says it, though, they brush it aside, as if we don’t know what they really need.
It’s absolutely maddening, and there’s no clear solution to it. Next time I do the VPython assignments, I’m going to try showing them some of the computer simulations that the engineering majors do in their senior projects, and see if that connection helps convince them that it matters, but I don’t hold out a great deal of hope.
And I have no idea how to sell them on the importance of writing. Given that people who are professional writers can write blisteringly stupid essays about writing instruction, I don’t know that there’s anything that can be done on that score…