Picking and Choosing

As the twentieth century dawned Charles Elliot, president of Harvard College, introduced elective courses to the world. At that point it seemed to make a modicum of sense — after all the young men (no women, of course) who attended Harvard were on the whole well prepared for college work and had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do with their lives. And as Elliot said they were in a better position to determine what courses they needed than their professors who were not omniscient. Indeed not. But even at the time the argument wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. The professors were not omniscient, but they had a better sense of what young men would need to prepare them to go forth in a changing world than the young men themselves.

At that time education was not as focused on jobs as it is now and the young were better prepared for college — compared to today’s entering college students. But if elective courses were questionable in Elliot’s day they are even more so today, given the facts noted above — and they are facts, sad to say. To make matters worse elective courses are now common in high schools as well as colleges where they have become commonplace.

By 1983 more than 50% of the units required to graduate from high school in thirteen states were elective courses, that is, courses young kids could pick and choose among at random. And that number has proliferated since that time. Not only were the courses elective, but they allowed students to take “life adjustment” courses such as “Life and Leisure,” “Home and Family,” Tools of Learning,” Work Experience,” and “Occupational Adjustment.” Often these courses replaced required courses in such things as civics and history, among others. The idea was to whet the appetites of disinterested and unmotivated students to keep them in school and hope that they learn something by the way. Research done by a variety of disinterested sources reveals that the vast majority of those graduating high school students are ignorant of their own history and how the government works. A great many of them also have difficulty reading, writing, and figuring — the three things that have always been the staples of basic education. As a consequence, roughly half of the students who enter college today are required to take remedial courses in spite of the fact that there are some exceptional teachers in the high schools who are asked to do the impossible for very little money.

I must confess at this point that I attended a high school in Baltimore where the entire “college-prep” program was laid out beforehand. I had no electives. I then attended a unique college in Annapolis, Maryland where the entire four years were spent in reading the “great books” and taking four years of required courses leading to a liberal education. I never questioned the right of the faculty to tell me what I ought to study. If I were choosing my own reading material I might have chosen to read trash like Atlas Shrugged, if you can imagine!  It was simply a given that the faculty knew what would best prepare me and my classmates for a changing world — contrary to Mr. Elliot.

Needless to say, I think Elliot was terribly wrong, even in his day. Admitting my bias I would still maintain that today’s students — especially — need to be told what to learn by faculty who are admittedly not omniscient, but who know more than the kids do. How on earth can we expect a disinterested, ill-prepared 17-year-old person to know what college courses will make them wiser and better informed? We can’t. But we do. We hand them a course schedule and turn them loose on hundreds of courses of unequal weight and benefit and hope for the best.

I think it is time to admit that Elliot’s experiment in education went terribly wrong and that the colleges should shore up their basic requirements, at the very least. However, the trend is in the opposite direction as general courses are shrinking in our colleges and universities while electives and major requirements gain in numbers. This is a mistake from the students’ point of view as it makes them increasingly narrow at a time when they need greater breadth of learning across a wide panorama of subjects.

College faculties must take responsibility for the education of the young people who come to them embarrassingly ignorant and who are supposed to leave several years later able to make informed decisions that greatly affect their lives. The job of these faculties is not to turn out historians, poets, artists, accountants, or biologists. It is to turn out educated citizens. As things now stand, college professors refuse to take responsibility as they fight over territory and seek to protect their academic domain while the students look on perplexed and disinterested and wonder where the party will be this weekend after the football game.

8 thoughts on “Picking and Choosing

  1. Interesting post. I agree. I do like providing some choices, but there is a need for structured syllabuses. If you have seen the Tom Hanks movie, “Larry Crowne” where he loses his store manager job and goes back to school at a community college, the sort of goofy Dean gets crystal clear on his advice on what courses to take after listening to Hanks – public speaking, english and economics. His reasoning – learn to speak and write more effectively and understand how business and market forces work. Well done, BTG

    • Electives might be more defensible with good advising. But in my experience, most faculty hate advising and do as little as possible.


  2. I’m not sure a few electives might not be good. In my case, I had a great business schedule at my school, but a few extra english and philosophy courses helped me become more rounded, in my estimation.

    I also question your emphasis on the professors knowing what is best for students. To a point you are likely correct, but in many cases, particularly in business, the professors are hopefully out of touch with what’s going on in the business world. In the late 80’s I went to a week long seminar at Stanford University in Palo Alto, focusing on the business of forecasting. Their emphasis for the week was what was referred to as EOQ (Economic Order Quantity), a statistical method based on cost of placing orders, annual volume, carrying costs, etc. The leader of the week long course was the dean of the business school, and he supplied many professors from other schools, such as Dartmouth, to supplant the courses. This was a course my manager wanted me to attend, and he paid well over $4000 for the week.

    Unfortunately, EOQ had been proven a poor forecasting model at least a decade earlier, and actual results in inventory management was to increase the investment and costs of inventory, while providing no improvement in proper inventory availability and demand support. Discrete forecasting had long since replaced it (Poisson Probability was the next great thing, which also was a bomb).

    In this case, the professors had no clue as to what was really going on in the business world, and instead of asking or being open to input from actual users, they latched on to a mathematical “solution” that failed miserably.

    My point is that I agree with you that too many electives will not help the cause, and too many are chosen for an easy grade. But also that professors have a responsibility to look beyond the textbooks and papers to learn whats real in the world.

    As an aside, there was no route to full professorship at my school if they did not have real world experiences, either in management or significant consulting experience. I thought that was a great idea.

    Great post, as usual.

    • Thanks for the comment, Barney. I do not claim that professors are omniscient. On the contrary. But I claim they know what is beneficial for their students — as a rule — better than 18 year-olds do, again, as a rule. The elective system is flawed and might work if we had better advising. But putting a thick class schedule in the hands of kids who are frequently unmotivated and lacking in direction is a major mistake. In principle, elective courses for the average student are indefensible You were obviously the exception to the rule.


      • Exception to the rule? you give me way too much credit!!! LOL.

        I was one of those 18 year olds, not sure why I was there, not sure what I wanted to do with my life, actually falling into a long and successful career more than having ever chosen it. I was practical enough to know that although I really liked mechanical things, and wanted to work with my hands, I was way too weak in mathematics to become the engineer I wanted to be. So business it was.

        I was incredibly lucky to have chosen an excellent school that had practical goals for its professors to be successful. As I said, no business professor attained that distinction without having actual business experience. All these years later, I recall my best management professor, Mr. Murphy, as a demanding task master who would argue all day with me over an issue, who taught me the philisophical text book selection, then at the end of the discussion, when asked what he would do, usually came up with a practical solution that varied from the theory. I would have followed this professors advice any day of the week.

        At our school, we had elective choices, usually only 2 courses per semester, but not until Junior year. As I mentioned, I felt weak in english, and wanted to study some philosophy to see what I was missing from the liberals arts side of the school (A huge mistake. Barely passed only because the professor gave me minimal credits for at least trying it).

        I guess my only concern is that Guidance is such a weak link these days in education, that we might rely too much on it. But there is no disagreeing with your point on the cluelessness of today’s 18 year olds. It is a dilemma.

        BTW: There is a great column in today’s NY Times, “How to Bridge the Hiring Gap” by Robert Goldfarb, that discusses how young are coming to companies believing they are ready for major promotions in a year or so, simply because they have a degree, and the companies not having, and unwilling to invest in apprentice/training programs. So the lack of direction continues beyond school years.

        Great discussion

      • In doing my research for my book n education (Recalling Education) I discovered that a great many corporate CEOs would prefer that students get a liberal education precisely because the business courses they take in college, typically, are outdated or too theoretical for practical application. They feel a general education where students learn to reason and speak coherently is to be preferred and that the companies themselves teach them what they will need to know to do well in the company. Would you agree?


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