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.