Choosing Blindly

It’s time to take a break from the depressing news about the upcoming election in which the Trumpet keeps bringing more and more idiots onto his bandwagon. Here’s a post about something I have always regarded as very important and which I am realistic enough to acknowledge will not change.I speak about my opposition to electives in college. And while I am aware that most of my readers who have graduated from college have taken a host of electives I must mention that I am not talking about them. I am talking about the norm. Most students going to college these days are subjected to a system that has undermined the real strength of American higher education and rendered it a crapshoot.

The elective system was first introduced in Harvard by President Charles William Eliot in the 1920s. It was designed to provide young men [sic] who came to Harvard well prepared a number of choices at the upper levels of their education.The idea was to supplement the basic core education with a few courses in the student’s area of special interest to provide him with both a broad and a specialized knowledge. It made sense at the time. But it has become the bane of American higher education in my mind because — aside from the major courses which faculty members defend with their very lives — students now often have more electives than they do requirements. And this at a time when they come to college unprepared and in need of careful guidance. The elective system has even now filtered down to the level of high school where a growing number of schools allow the students to pick courses of varying merit from long lists of options.

The problem here is that the system rests on the assumption that the students are in position to make choices that will benefit them in the long run. It presupposes that they know something about each of the options they face before they make their choice — they know that physics is more important than badminton. This was a reasonable assumption in Eliot’s day. It most assuredly is not any more.

Imagine, if you will, a hungry young person in France who speaks no French facing a table filled with food labelled in the native language they do not speak. They are allowed to choose any food they want from the table with the proviso that what they choose will be both healthy and beneficial to future growth. It won’t happen. Obviously. They will hesitate, ask friends, and in the end take what look best in the off-chance that it will fulfill the requirements demanded of them. In the end, I predict, they will eat the sweet foods and leave the vegetables and become sick and emaciated. The parallel here is almost exact, except that in higher education we are concerned about mental health rather than physical well-being.

The problem has arisen because since the 1960s college faculty members have grown increasingly uncertain about just what it is that students need in order to become intelligent, thoughtful adults. They understand their own area of specialization and because territory has become increasingly important to insecure faculty members who worry about their continued employment, they seek to increase major requirements at their college and reduce the number of “core” courses that are the residue of what was left after students attacked requirements as “irrelevant” in the 1960s. In many colleges and universities, those core requirements have been totally replaced with electives, either free electives of selected electives in groups that give the student the illusion of real choice.

The problem is the students are not in a position to choose sensibly, unless it were possible to have them choose in close association with a faculty member of demonstrated objectivity who is clearly concerned primarily with what is best for the student and not what is best for his or her department or career. Such a person is rare indeed, and most faculty sluff-off advising because there are too many students and they prefer to spend their time doing things they regard as more important. Furthermore, they are primarily concerned with filling their own classrooms.  I know this from personal experience and from the talks I have had with colleagues from around the country whose experience mirrors my own.

The point is that students are given choices before they are in position to choose wisely. They are like the hungry young person facing a table filled with food that is entirely foreign to them: they choose blindly and stupidly, at times for the worst of reasons — “I have that hour open,” “Fred told me the professor was easy,” “I needed another elective.” What’s important is that the course they choose benefit them in the long run, helps them gain control of their own minds. That will not, cannot, happen unless they choose wisely and that presupposes they know what they cannot possibly know until after they have made the choice. It’s a classic “Catch 22.” But the fault lies not with the students, who do not know any better; it lies with the faculty who should know better.



8 thoughts on “Choosing Blindly

  1. Hugh, having two in college and one just out, they seem to do a better job with the Core requirements giving structured flexibility with a few selections. As for the elective, I would prefer an active mentor to make recommendations. My current two are in small colleges and they have more time for such counseling. Good post. Keith

    • In all my years of teaching in higher education I never met a fellow faculty member who enjoyed advising. They all saw it as a burden. I loved it and worked closely with honors students helping them put together programs that would benefit them in the long run — starting with those courses they loved and working outwards to the courses they would need in order to find work after graduation. But it takes a lot of work and you have to put aside your own urges to push unwitting students into your own courses or the courses in your major field of interest. Above all else, it takes a genuine concern for the student’s future and not your own. There’s not much of that going around!

      • Hugh, I am not surprised by your passion for advising. And, I am not surprised by others who see it as a burden. It is akin to those who are the best supervisors are the ones who devote time to helping the staff grow and function. My daughter and sons speak well of their advisors. To me, this is where the rubber meets the road. Thanks, Keith

      • They are so much better off in a small college where they will get the attention they require. In larger colleges and universities advisors frequently have dozens of advisees they must meet for short periods during a week or so set aside for advising. This is why I think the electives are borderline madness. The kids make the choices with a blindfold on!

  2. The problems of the elective system in higher education are more than familiar to me. I battled against the inherent malpractices of this system for almost 40 years.

    Professor Curtler’s metaphor of the table of unknown and effectively unlabeled food from which uninformed students choose their diet based upon what they think they might like is apt. I refer to the same phenomenon with another metaphor: The University as Shopping Mall.

    The shopping mall metaphor focuses the problem on the way university administrators and faculty prepare and package the goods they sell to the “student consumer” — another metaphor I loathe. The central focus of the Shopping Mall University is not upon what is academically good for students but rather upon what academic goods can be sold to them.

    I do not harbor a nostalgic vision of a university where the faculty are strong, the deans are wise and the students are all above average. Rather, what I have argued for since entering graduate school is a demanding curriculum developed and supported by the faculty and focused upon the intellectual development of students– even if it makes some students unhappy! Better still if that curriculum were to focus upon sustained reading, discussion, and written consideration of the original documents of one’s culture and discipline. No textbooks!

    I promoted this viewpoint in every college, university and department I have worked in — sometimes to the detriment of my career. My experiences suggest that what Frederick Rudolph, an historian of American education, said in his book, Curriculum (1993) is correct. Modern higher education in this country reflects “the victory of the department over the university.” While all colleges and universities have mission statements, few have a sense of mission. And while most departments view their classes as indispensable parts of a students “general education”, the real concern I have seen manifested over the years within departments has been for the continued existence of the department, apart from any concern for the educational development of students.

    Oh, the number of times I have heard the phrase, “Our first and most important job is to keep the lights on”. I hasten to add that the illumination referred to here is not from lamps of learning but from light bulbs in buildings and faculty offices. Universities are no longer regard as colleges, i.e., as recognized associations of educated colleagues; universities are regarded as corporations, and any suggestion that they ought to be more than that is derided as folly — or as racist,sexist, elitist, euro-centric, or whatever other ill-defined epithet happens to be fashionable at the time.

    One must understand that in the Shopping Mall University, students are not merely consumers, they are products to be processed as “efficiently” as possible. [NB: “Efficiency” means large lecture classes using multiple-choice exams with content diluted so as to be generally palatable to those already accustomed to fast food. Ideally, these courses are taught by an adjunct member of the faculty, paid little and supported even less. To be truthful, I even taught such courses to prevent others from doing more damage than I would do. Thus, I know whereof I speak.] The elective system is a symptom of this underlying condition.

    In sum, it is not simply that students left to their own devices will often make bad choices; it is also true that the choices available to them too often offer little intellectual substance. All of this makes faculty advising very important, to be sure, but many faculty avoid student advisement, preferring to leave it to those in the Student Advisement Center whose primary concern is to determine what courses will fit into a student schedule and what requirements those courses meet. While important, this is scheduling, not advising in its traditional sense. It is, however, the norm in state colleges and universities, largely (1) because the faculty do not wish to be bothered, and (2) because there are few incentives for them to do so –apart from the very real intrinsic rewards of fulfilling one’s duty. What a quaint notion.

    As is true of almost any shopping mall. one can find good things therein if one knows where and how to look; the same is true of The Shopping Mall University. Yet I would argue that the typical student is a more informed consumer in a shopping mall than they are in a college or university. What rational person would argue that what students need academically is identical to what they want or prefer, especially if they are in the first year or two of their studies? (Corollary: Many university administrators and faculty act and speak as if they were not rational persons.)

    The importance of faculty advising cannot be overstated. I recently retired as Professor Emeritus from a state university. I loved my work and regarded a position on a university faculty as one of the most privileged vocations in all of human history. Nonetheless, it is by no means accidental that my sons attended a private high school (as will two of my grandchildren) and a private liberal arts college (as will at least two of my grandchildren) . Nor is it incidental that I spent an entire career trying to make student experiences in a state university as much like those of a small liberal arts college as I could. The relationship between faculty and students, including faculty advisement, has been central in all of this.

    Having said this much, perhaps too much, I will conclude by simply saying that, once again, Professor Curtler’s comments are spot on.

    Thank you, Professor Curtler.

    • Many thanks for the extended comment. You make a number of points that I missed this time around! I have always thought there should be a financial reward for faculty advising in order to get them more involved. But it was not to be. One of the reviewers of my book on education said that after reading my book they were convinced that there is a place in Dante’s Hell for current faculty and administrators — the circle of malice and fraud. I couldn’t agree more.

      • The eighth circle of hell might be a good place to start. Then one could specify which bolgia people belong in on a case-by-case basis.
        This is eady to say, but he question for others to answer is where in that hell I should go…

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