Vikram Srinivasan of the The Chronicle thinks that Duke should offer a Great Books program for incoming Freshmen, a suggestion stemming from his observation that, more often than not, students enter their undergraduate institutions with little idea of what they want to study, an issue that the plethora of class choices does little to alleviate. A great books program like the one currently offered at Yale, however, would equip students with a solid foundation with which they could explore other subjects.
Here especially, offering students the option—not the requirement—of a Great Books-type immersion in their first year would not only enable them to satisfy numerous University requirements, but do so in a meaningful way that would enrich the remainder of their studies and prepare them to make more deliberate and thoughtful academic choices.
Indeed, in a liberal arts education, course order matters. Though it is true that many of the themes engaged by the primary works are timeless, they are not ahistorical. They are best studied as part of a conversation, and the classes I have learned the most in are those which have taught intellectual history as such.
Particularly for humanities students, it becomes clear over the course of their study how important the history of ideas is to a meaningful understanding of their coursework. The lack of a broad-based exposure to major thinkers in many of these fields can be frustrating for students as they enter higher level courses and realize they aren’t quite as familiar with the foundations as they thought they were. [emphasis mine]
The point that students have too much choice when it comes to selecting classes is a good one. Choice does yield utility to an extent, but at a certain point the utility seems to not just level off, but actually decrease. It’s a classic case of quantity versus quality. Bombarded with a plethora of options, many students drift through their undergraduate years, dabbling in a wide variety of courses instead of gaining expertise in one field. This is not to imply that choice is a bad thing, however, just that it can be a bad thing if misapplied. To use a cricket analogy, the status quo seems to favor all-rounders (those who have moderate ability in batting, bowling, and fielding) as opposed to specialists. A team of all-rounders may have fleeting success every now and then, but true, sustained success requires individuals who can take the skills they have developed over a long period of time and apply them to a multitude of different situations.
But the issue is not that simple. The humanities have been moving towards the periphery of our collective consciousness for a while now for a variety of reasons. First, the trend in post-modern “progressive education” circles has been to de-emphasize the value of facts in favor of nebulous “critical thinking” skills. Though, as E.D. Hirsch has been valiantly arguing for decades, such an approach not only flies in the face of common sense, it is antithetical to the latest research in neuroscience.
More powerfully than any previous critic, Hirsch showed how destructive these instructional approaches were. The idea that schools could starve children of factual knowledge, yet somehow encourage them to be “critical thinkers” and teach them to “learn how to learn,” defied common sense. But Hirsch also summoned irrefutable evidence from the hard sciences to eviscerate progressive-ed doctrines. Hirsch had spent the better part of the decade since Cultural Literacy mastering the findings of neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics on which teaching methods best promote student learning. The scientific consensus showed that schools could not raise student achievement by letting students construct their own knowledge. The pedagogy that mainstream scientific research supported, Hirsch showed, was direct instruction by knowledgeable teachers who knew how to transmit their knowledge to students—the very opposite of what the progressives promoted. [emphasis mine]
Further, the “trendy new doctrines of multiculturalism, postmodernism (with its dogma that objective facts don’t exist), and social-justice” have created a market conducive to rampant esotericism, an unfortunate phenomena tragicomically illustrated by the now infamous Sokal hoax.
But I digress. Srinivasan’s point is a good one, and a similar approach would be worth considering right here in Arizona. Of course the whole discussion is moot as long as our splendid institution continues its open admissions policy. Asking students to stretch their minds and tackle tough reading assignments seems a bit futile when professors are forced spend half the semester explaining the consequences of plagiarism. The situation wouldn’t be so bad if there were even a semblance of a reason to trust that it was working. Unfortunately, no such reasons exists. The University of Arizona continues to trail the AAU pack when it comes to graduation rates; our four-year and six-year rates hover around 36% and 58%, respectively. I suppose this is a natural consequence when the powers-that-be look at students as little more than temporary sources of revenue.