The Arizona Desert Lamp

A Cornucopia of Knowledge

Posted in Campus, Culture by Evan Lisull on 3 April 2009

CornucopiaOne of the pet issues here at the Lamp is reinstating a respect for knowledge, especially through the general education system. So it’s nice to see Harvard leading the way:

Although most students may deem the undersubscribed subjects impractical, the bastion of liberal arts education has in recent years begun promoting learning for learning’s sake as a worthy and enriching pursuit. Rather than viewing a major solely as a stepping-stone to a career, the university is pushing students to broaden their interests and explore more esoteric topics.

. . .

To entice students to explore such subjects, Harvard has more than tripled the number of small freshman seminars taught by star professors. Among the 132 diverse classes: “The Beasts of Antiquity and their Natural History.”

Also relevant in this vein is this Atlantic Monthly piece from a few years, arguing that future business managers should major in philosophy rather than getting an M.B.A:

What they don’t seem to teach you in business school is that “the five forces” and “the seven Cs” and every other generic framework for problem solving are heuristics: they can lead you to solutions, but they cannot make you think. Case studies may provide an effective way to think business problems through, but the point is rather lost if students come away imagining that you can go home once you’ve put all of your eggs into a two-by-two growth-share matrix. [emphasis added – EML]

This quote, I think, sums up the argument against professional undergraduate degrees (Pre-Law, Pre-Business, etc.) as well as the politicized ends-based classroom (for a qualified defense, read here). This quote criticizes the “seven Cs” generic framework, but this criticism applies equally to any framework: social justice, feminist activism, libertarian Leninism, and so forth. When the purpose of seeking knowledge is replaced with the purpose of using knowledge, then the ability to think is replaced with the ability to act.

The UA’s justifications for general education include the development “critical thinking, writing, and information literacy.” The problem with this list is that it ignores entirely the issue of content – it wants us to be full without providing food. In his post, Matt argues that

In any case, at a fundamental level, there can be no unambiguous distinction between facts and ways of thinking about things, because what count as facts and what count as significant facts are entirely dependent on a certain perspective and mode of thinking

This puts the cart before the horse – a student cannot begin to think critically until he has something to think about. To use a media metaphor, the ends-based classroom replaces the News section with the Opinions section – opinions are important, but a student who learns from opinions alone becomes nothing more than a parrot of other critical thinkers, unable to think on his own.

More preferable is the following list, offered in a piece from the Pope Center:

  • To help students to develop crucial habits of mind,” such as a spirit of inquiry, logical thinking, and a regard for the proper evaluation of evidence.
  • To make students more literate, meaning to make them more proficient in their reading, writing, and speaking.
  • To familiarize students with mathematics and the statistical evaluation of data.
  • To should provide students with a sense of history and framework of time.
  • To give students an understanding of science, and especially of scientific method.
  • To introduce students to the world of art and aesthetics.

Yet I can’t quite sign off on the proposed remedies:

One major structural flaw is State’s “smorgasbord-style” approach to general education that gives the students a huge assortment of courses to select from. For example, instead of requiring a specific important course that all students must take, such as Western Civilization or American History, the current requirements merely said that students had to take a history, philosophy, or religion course. Students are then offered a wide array of 66 courses to choose from, many with an extremely narrow scope (such as HI/AFS 275: Introduction to History of South and East Africa), and at least one that borders on the silly: HON 341: Time Travel.

I fail to see how a seminar on time travel – a philosophical problem not only integrated with an “understanding of science” but also contributing to a broader “sense of . . . the framework of time” – is bordering on the silly. Anyways, the first problem, naturally, is logistical – to implement a “Western Civilization” course, the UA would have to open McKale to accommodate all of the students that would have to take the course. Besides, what sort of graduate student and/or instructor is qualified to teach ‘Western Civilization’? Most importantly, though, this sort of instruction reeks of remedial education. In another passage, the author Jay Schalin bemoans the lost sense of time among current students:

Another problem with not requiring a broad history survey course, such as Western or Eastern Civilization, or American History, is that many young people enter college without a mental time-line of history the way earlier generations have (or had). This is likely because primary and secondary education have de-emphasized pairing great events, people, and ideas with specific dates and eras. A history survey course requirement directly addresses that problem—but courses that fill the new humanities requirements such as WGS 492, Theoretical Issues in Women’s and Gender Studies or PHI 214, Issues in Business Ethics do not.

Yet as Schalin implicitly admits, this a failure of the K-12 system, not the university system. Yet this critique does touch on an important problem for undergraduate education, which lies between the intense specialization of graduate studies and the basic knowledge drilled through pre-collegiate education. The best way to reconcile these two impulses is to provide a a patchwork of specialization, which when taken in whole provide a broader understanding. To become an effective – rather than close-minded – hedgehog, one must first have the understanding of a fox. This Slate article (HT: James Poulos) on the decline of Trivial Pursuit sums up the problem rather well:

Trivia lives; it’s generalist trivia, the kind of fluency that Trivial Pursuit prized, that’s ailing. Just as the Internet splintered trivia into thousands of niches, Trivial Pursuit has contented itself with turning out games like “90s Time Capsule” and “Book Lover’s,” and, more frighteningly, those devoted solely to the vagaries of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Gone is the proud generalist of the original Trivial Pursuit, who knew the most common Russian surname (Ivanov) and the international radio code word for the letter O (Oscar). In his place is the specialist, who knows every inch of Return of the Jedi. There are many of us who have a nagging fear we belong to the latter group.

Perhaps the distinction is best summed up by viewing the undergraduate education as a plate set before a hungry mind. The ends-based classroom seeks to implement a healthy diet – call it the SHAC of education. You eat your social justice because it’s full of socially-democratic vitamins. The ‘classical’ education model from the Pope Center wants to pretend that hummus doesn’t exist, and offers a nice steak dinner. The ‘module’ or ‘corncucopia’ model offers samples of all sorts of food – a piece of sushi, a bite-sized kangaroo burger, barbacoa, apples, and so forth. If you’re trying to develop a palate, it’s hard to argue against the latter model.

Image courtesy of WikiCommons

2 Responses

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  1. […] No Comments Evan has another very good post over at the Desert Lamp this weekend called “A Cornucopia of Knowledge” about what the purpose of education should be. Part of it references my earlier post here, […]

  2. […] This post is a somewhat haphazard sequel to thoughts in an earlier post. Tagged with: Graduate School, higher education, Ivory Tower, Stimulus, Sustainability no […]

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