Monday, October 04, 2004

Axing liberal arts courses (part 3)

I've heard critics of the liberal arts core courses talking about a "silo mentality" among those who wish to defend the integrity of their disciplines. "Silos" stand for the "disciplines" and I see their point: they think students don't get to see how what goes in one "discipline" (or "silo") relates to what goes on in others.

We home-schooled all four of my youngest sons (one all the way through high school, the three others up to high school) because we didn't like the the public school program they were in (they were in a school no longer in existence) and felt the socialization was antisocial, anti-intellectual, and the schooling was an excuse to monitor problem students rather than teach. Home schooling was difficult, but I learned a lot about how kids learn, and how the concrete context of everyday situations ofter furnishes the best learning situations. Disciplines are rarely compartmentalized in real life as they are in college.

Having said that, I don't think there is any other way of organizing learning in some fields (calculus, metaphysics, and many higher-order disciplines), and for as many students as inhabit a college. We can't very well take whole classes through Winn Dixie to teach each member how to read the label on cans and boxes, calculate the best size for the best buy, the healthiest ingredients and why, etc.

Some suggest that that the joy of discovery is an extra-curricular activity that has no place in our curriculum. Perhaps that's a bit like saying that the one sure way of killing romance is to get married. Yet I doubt that either of those things is entirely true. Re-discovering romance in marriage may mean outgrowing some adolescent popular-culture-formed notions about what romance and marriage are. Likewise, discovery may involve outgrowing some adolescent popular-culture-formed notions about how "boring" learning is, and so forth. HOW that happens is a bit tricky, it seems to me. I haven't discovered any magic pill. There's probably some truth in the adage that says you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. Still, there are better and worse ways of leading a horse to water, I suppose. It may be romantically naive to suppose that the majority of our students would suddently all flock to discussions and books about calculus and metaphysics and ancient history if we simply didn't require them to study these subjects. On the other hand, requiring them to study these subjects is no guarantee that they'll find them delightful. It probably takes a combination of several things, including, perhaps, the disposition and background of individual students, the personality and style of particular professors, and the circumstances in which ideas are encountered. I know that for me it was something that happened in my sophomore year of college when I decided to pick those subjects that interested me rather than the prescribed courses. So that may argue in favor of flexibility. On the other hand, I wouldn't have discovered what interested me had I not been required to take a core course in philosophy. And that may argue in favor of a required core. So I'm not sure where that leaves me, but I'm in no hurry to tear apart the core. I think it has to be (and can be) "worked" better, in the sense of being more rigorous and engaging, etc. I seriously doubt whether there's a legistlatable "structural" solution to the problem of student interest and discovery that learning can be fun.

I've made fascinating discoveries in the classroom while in the midst of teaching things that I've taught numerous times before. Often. So I doubt that the reason for dullness and lack of excitement in learning is attributable entirely to the structured learning framed by our liberal arts core requirements. I think the dullness and disinterest has more to do with cultural and social attitudes toward learning and discovery. Perhaps more than we ever think it may even have to do with the now pervasive belief that "truth" is relative and "reality" is pretty much whatever a person wants it to be. Some people are in for a rude awakening.

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