Watch Out For Snakes

I reached back to 2011 for this repost. It deals with one of my favorite topics and remains as relevant today as it did then — especially with an election coming up. 

If I enter a room filled with paper bags, one of which holds a rattlesnake while the others are filled with treats, am I free to grab a bag filled with treats? In one sense I am, in another I am not. I am free to grab any bag I want to because no one is holding a gun to my head and my hands are not tied. But I am not free in the sense that I do not know which bag holds the treats and which might hold the rattlesnake. Real freedom consists of knowledge and if I am ignorant I am not really free. There is a fundamental difference between blind choice and informed choice.

This is a simple illustration of a very important point that has been lost on most of us because we think that the more bags we have, the more bread in our stores, the more items on Amazon, the freer we are. And in this sense we in America are more free to grab almost any bag we want to — well, most of us are, and the wealthier we are the more bags we can grab. But real freedom is not a function of the number of bags. Unless we know which bag holds the snake, we are hopelessly ignorant and our ignorance can render us very sick or even dead from a fatal rattlesnake bite. Just think about political elections and the snakes we have grabbed, especially of late, to guide the country!

This is why education is so important: because it is only through an education properly conceived that we can be truly free. A liberal  education sets us free from ignorance, that is, from the things that can truly harm us. Ironically, Harvard College introduced the concept of “elective courses” into their curriculum in the 1930s when they mistakenly assumed that freedom is a matter of blind choice. Other colleges soon followed their lead, as did the high schools and even many grammar schools (the “free schools”). Now the idea has become so entrenched in the heads of educators that they are eliminating any semblance of liberal education by reducing — or eliminating altogether — the core courses that are pretty much all that remains of the notion that there are some things people should know in order to become truly free. The assumption that the young are free is absurd, since freedom does not consist in the ability to choose the bag with the rattlesnake in it.

Freedom regarded simply as blind choice will eventually become chaos when carried far enough. Real freedom comes from a restricted number of choices based on knowledge and the ability to think about the clues that might lead us to the bag with the treats and away from the bag with the rattlesnake. Education, properly understood, is about real freedom, not about blind choice.

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.

 

Core Curriculum

In a post I called “A Modest Proposal”  in May of 2012 I suggested that it might be possible to devise a core curriculum that college students could take online prior to enrolling in college to pursue their degree. It is not the best of all possible worlds, because online college courses are known for their high drop-out rates and there is simply no substitute for one-on-one teacher/student engagement in the classroom. But given the fact that the vast majority of our colleges are simply not requiring their students to do much more than wander aimlessly through a maze of elective courses — with no rhyme or reason — coupled with the rising costs of higher education, my proposal seemed the lesser of evils, as it were.

Lo and behold, the group I have referred to in a number of previous blogs, including the blog referred to above, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has proposed precisely the sort of thing I dreamed up nearly a year ago. No, I will not sue for plagiarism! I am not the litigious type. I prefer to think that great minds eventually come to the similar conclusions. Clearly, the condition of higher education — which I have alluded to more times than I care to recall — demands some sort of remedy. And the popularity and lower expense of the internet suggests the wisdom of allowing students to get the basic grounding in substantive courses they require in order to become engaged citizens in an ever-changing world. Major requirements and some elective courses can come later in a two-year program on campus.

The ACTA’s proposal is called “StraighterLine” and it allows students to take six of the seven core courses online they have determined are the sine qua non of an educated person — courses in composition, literature, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science. This curriculum will be available later this year and will soon be followed by a second intermediate-level course in foreign language, thus fulfilling the seven course requirement the ACTA has determined will best serve the students of tomorrow. All courses will be available online at a greatly reduced cost to the student.

Indeed, the seven proposed courses will cost the students less than $2,000.00 and will therefore be very attractive in an era in which costs have skyrocketed and students are graduating with narrow vision  and huge debt. As the ACTA Newsletter said in announcing the program, “The times are changing in higher education. While ACTA’s focus remains on traditional institutions, our message of access, affordability, and quality of education extends to new platforms of learning.” I do not endorse the program without a few qualifications (as one can imagine), but I think it is a huge step in the right direction. I applaud the ACTA for making what I think will turn out to be a vast improvement in American higher education. The faculties of our colleges have fumbled the ball and the ACTA has picked it up and are heading for the goal line. (No, I am not being paid for this endorsement!)