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.