Miscellaneous Liberal Education Stuff

The posts on box-checking and liberal arts teaching generated a fair number of comments that I haven’t really had time to address individually, across a few different social media platforms. So I’m going to collect some of the more important stuff here, in one catch-up post.

–A few people, mostly in places that aren’t conducive to linking, raised versions of “You never know what will be useful” as a justification for having a list of boxes to check. And I don’t entirely disagree with that. I’m not against the idea of forcing students to take a broader range of stuff than they otherwise might through some sort of list of requirements– my objection is to thoughtlessly requiring them to take courses just to check boxes. I’m fine with the idea of lists of requirements, but I think we should have a clear idea about why we’re requiring those things, and make sure we’re presenting them in a way that will be effective.

I do disagree somewhat with the notion that “You never know…” though, in a very quantum physicist-y sort of way. That is, while I agree that it’s impossible to determine in advance what specific courses and bits of content will prove useful or inspiring to individual students, I think it’s possible to make general statements about aggregate results. We can’t predict individual results in detail, but I think we can (or should be able to, at least) say something about the types of skills and ideas that most frequently turn out to be useful. That’s the core data that ought to drive the setting of requirements, and shape the teaching of courses for non-majors, in the ideal case where we move beyond box-checking.

– a couple of people raised societal concerns, most forcefully agm in a comment here about the history of education and the inherent class tensions thereof:

Being able to give any sort of real reason beyond checking boxes requires one to be aware of the history of the liberal arts as a gentleman’s education, as well as the ability to persuasively present a rationale that the student should care when a typical ABET-accredited engineering program now requires multiple year-long sequences of hard classes.

It seems to me that the reason you have trouble forming this rationale is that currently it does not exist. If you want to persuade me that it exists, you need evidence, proof that jobs and promotions hinge on the skills developed in these classes – a faculty member telling me “We are teaching you to think, not programming automatons” presumes evidence not yet presented, because down the road, that faculty member is not signing my paychecks in most circumstances.

A gentler variant came from a college classmate on Facebook, asking “do we live in a culture where the liberal arts are valued? where people are expected to be good at multiple things?”

These are good points, and I don’t disagree– I wrote a big thing about the class aspects a while ago. As to the second question, I’ll cop out a little and say that I don’t think there’s really a single culture that “we” all share, but a whole host of different cultural strata that overlap and interpenetrate each other. Answering the question of whether the liberal arts are valued really depends on which of those many cultures you’re dealing with.

For the specific subset of students I spend most of my time thinking about– namely, those in the elite Northeastern college pool– I think that the answer is yes. That is, a large fraction of our students come from a class and culture where being good at multiple things is valued, and when they leave us, the vast majority of our students are headed for a culture where it’s valued. That’s most of what we do, after all, and it’s why most of us feel it important to ensure access to this “gentlemen’s education” to as broad an array of students as possible.

(As an aside, that description always reminds me of Bill Bryson’s line about Oxford, that (paraphrased) now that the British Empire no longer needs colonial administrators who can quip in Latin, he isn’t entirely sure what it’s for. Which is usually followed closely by this, because my brain is weird that way.)

– One of the several things I didn’t manage to get into the previous posts that’s probably worth mentioning is another historical factor that stems from the “gentlemen’s education” background, namely the idea of a shared common core of material. One of the (side) effects of having everybody take the same broad set of courses used to be that everybody who went through that read and studied the same books. Which provided a common set of cultural references for everybody.

The book-in-progress involved reading a lot of history of physics stuff, and one thing that didn’t immediately jump out but became clear over time was the role of that common culture. Physicists and science writers of the early 20th century pepper their discussions with lots of allusions to classical mythology, and just assume everyone will know what they’re talking about. While I’ve read my share of Greek myths, a lot of these sent me to Google to figure out just what the hell they were talking about, because that common background is mostly gone, and has been for decades.

I’m not saying we need to go back to making every entering college student read the same set of millennia-old European texts. There are good reasons why the notion of a set “Canon” fell into disrepute, and that’s not a fight I’m interested in having. These days, we can’t even get faculty teaching first-years to agree to all teach a single book in common– comparing the wrangling of faculty to herding cats is insulting to the cats.

The removal of exposure to some Canon of common works, though, has implications for the box-checking approach to liberal education. As much out of historical inertia as anything else, we’ve held onto the idea of giving students a really broad overview of a lot of stuff, which made more sense when there was significant overlap between the broad overviews provided by different faculty. Without that overlap, though, I’m not sure the case for really broad overviews is all that compelling.

– Which brings is to the other comment I really liked, this one from Paul, who had a better experience with an upper-level course than an intro one:

I think a student is much better served by being dropped into a 200-300 level course in a major to see first hand how that topic is discussed and approached by people passionate for it. Rather than giving a “biology for poets” class that gives all the information and none of the wonder, or approaches it through the lens of literary criticism, put them in a class on one aspect of biology, say, the ‘science of photosynthesis’. I think that’s much better preparation for learning more on the topic through the rest of your life, and for taking away the lesson of another way of approaching a problem.

That’s an interesting suggestion, and while I don’t think it would really work using majors courses in science, it’s worth noting that the “state of the art” in Gen Ed science classes these days is not the old-school “physics for poets” survey course where you cover a huge swathe of stuff without math, but more targeted courses organized around areas that are nominally more advanced, but provide a clearer focus. We’ve done a non-majors course on lasers and optics a bunch of times, with good results, and both the biology and chemistry departments have done popular “science of cooking” courses. Lots of places do forensic chemistry for non-majors who like CSI-type shows, and there’s the whole “Physics for Future Presidents” thing. All of those use more focused topics as a vehicle for introducing the key ideas and process of science, without trying to cover a really broad sweep of stuff.

(That said, our most regular Gen Ed courses are survey intro-to-astronomy courses. But we do those that way in part because they do double duty as majors courses– science majors can take a 100-level version that meets one extra time a week to do the math that goes with the material…)

So, yeah, I support the basic concept behind this. Broad surveys are often bad for non-majors, regardless of the field. They can play an important role as foundational courses for somebody who’s going to need a broad view of the field to continue on, but for students outside that population a narrower take that gets a few key ideas across is probably better.

I probably ought to have some kind of grand conclusion to this, but it’s been a really long week, so I’ll just stop.

(Really, the other thing I probably ought to do is reach out to some folks on the other side of campus and see if it would be possible to tap into the humanities development grant they have to develop a “Literature for Scientists” sort of class. But I don’t really need another grand time-consuming project that I don’t have time to deal with at this point…)

Comments

  1. #1 Ken Hansen
    United States
    January 10, 2014

    Hi Chad,

    I have always liked your posts as they are very thought provoking. Full disclosure – I double majored at Cal Poly in Mechanical Engineering & English and have a MS in Statistics.

    I can say with a fair amount of personal certainty that both majors had classes that were interesting but had little impact on my future employment and/or personal enlightenment. Controls (lecture and lab) were difficult and never again used. I am also happy to report that I have never since had to open Paradise Lost.

    I do think college teaches us how to think and learn. Some of the more rewarding English classes may be difficult for those who deal in strictly right and wrong answers. But learning to think (and write) to an audience that may not be physicists (or even scientific) is useful in the “real” world. The comment by AGM wanting evidence and data seems too convenient. Certainly core classes provide skills that are employable but as I mentioned above not all those core classes will be used. On the other hand soft skills like communication, management, and public speaking may be more easily obtained from the liberal arts education. If AGM wants data, he will likely be waiting a very long time since there are so many variables influencing future success; teasing out the impact of a class in philosophy or Shakespeare would be extremely difficult.

    In conclusion, shorting the liberal arts may get you more technical focus at the start of your career, but I believe leaving out liberal arts may have a negative impact on long term careeer success and personal fulfillment.

  2. #2 John
    January 11, 2014

    I’m a physics major. The liberal arts courses I took in college were useless to me in my later career. Further, they were counter productive. That is, they instructed things that I later had to unlearn before I could learn or appreciate the knowledge that could help or be interesting.

    For example, the “English” classes taught how to write. No. They taught how to write literature. They didn’t instruct how to read and write patents, legal documents, or scientific papers. After college, I found the “great literature” was very instructive for describing what people were doing and thinking that caused them to do that helps make sense of history. History in school appeared irrational. Later I learned and understood the environment of the people at some of the historical times. I think that once people understand the past motivations, we can better understand where and how we are going. When reading the Constitution, the words meanings at the time are much different than the far left’s use of the words. “Equality” meant equality before God, which could allow slavery. Lincoln meant “Equality of opportunity”. FDR and today equality means “equality of outcome”, which produces the welfare state. One thing that stuck about Pythagoras was the liberal historian’s slant was to call him a kook (basically). The instructor’s rant was about the dictum to have nothing to do with the beans. He thought it was about babies and other rubbish. After college, I learned it was philosophical point. Beans were how the Greeks at the time voted. Not engaging in the beans was a comment about not voting. We don’t need utopian ideals.

    For example, the economics class was taught from Samualson “Economics” that is all about Keynesian economics. You know – the model of economics that failed to predict and is now failing to help our economy. The “theory” made no sense in its logic to physics majors. There was no real data. The curves were all theoretical and pie in the sky. Only later when stagflation hit did it become clear the economics course was actually counterproductive. Then I learned through self-study about Friedman – whose predictions proved accurate. Like liberals today, the instructor really didn’t like questioning or even any view not in complete agreement. The adjectives he used were very insulting.

  3. #3 Jim Thomerson
    January 18, 2014

    Out of my freshman English class (1953), which I enjoyed, because it was a pleasant class, I formed the ability to lay out 500 coherent words on whatever subject, rather painlessly, and have never had a problem with professional writing. I had English Literature, which was another pleasant class, and a technical writing class which was not as pleasant. I’d almost say I can do technical writing in spite of it.

    In years gone by, the science courses for non majors were also the first courses for majors. But even back in the ’50s there began to be general education courses which tried to serve the non major in a more useful way.

    I am an Emeritus Biology Professor, with much experience at teaching both general education courses and introductory major courses. In the latter, I did 80% department agreed material, and 20% whatever else I wanted to emphasize. In the latter, I took the view that all of biology is very important, and we will cover some bits of it here. I like to teach from a historical point of view. I think it is important the students think about how we came to know things, and why we thought it worthwhile to know these things. My goal in general education was to convince the students that biology is both important and interesting. At my university, other science majors would likely not take any biology. I thought it odd that a music or history major could know more about biology than a chemist, physicist, or engineer.

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