24.6.04

IVY TECH: Newmark's Door notes that universities "reluctantly try to prepare liberal arts majors for actual jobs." He links to a New York Times article that tells the story. Or does it? Read the paper. Try not to choke on your coffee.
N.Y.U. is one of a growing handful of colleges and universities taking this approach; still others are talking about it. After years of sending students out for internships to give them a taste of a possible career, college officials are beginning to look for ways to turn their faculty and classes to bolstering the career prospects of their liberal arts students.

The phenomenon takes many forms. Some universities, like the University of Southern California and Columbia, are letting students take career-oriented classes in their professional schools - classes on finance or public health, for example - and giving them academic credit. N.Y.U., which already allowed liberal arts students to take courses in its professional schools, is now also letting students take classes at its School of Continuing and Professional Education to provide even more specialized vocational classes. Colgate will be offering introductory career courses during vacations. And the University of Virginia, which had offered a postgraduation immersion program in business in the summer, began offering similar courses during the school year last fall. (Students pay extra.) But while some see these courses as a sensible extra that will ultimately help protect the liberal arts degree, some liberal arts educators vehemently oppose the idea of trying squeeze professional training into students' schedules.

Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst College, said that if students had more time they should "go deeper into the liberal arts, because that is the seed corn of an intellectual life and informed citizenship."

"To dilute the power of the liberal arts with premature professionalism will deprive our society of the thoughtful leadership it needs," Mr. Marx added.

President Marx is correct, but perhaps he is complicit in the dissolution of general education that has brought about the current state of affairs. Go here to judge for yourself whether
a solid core curriculum in higher education has gone the way of the dodo. At a time when most colleges endorse the importance of a general education—a set of courses required of all students—in fact, colleges have virtually abandoned a solid core curriculum in favor of a loose set of distribution requirements. As a consequence, college students are graduating without the basic knowledge that was once considered the hallmark of a liberal education.

Rather than attempt to expand the college course to five years, why not agree on some core ideas and get everybody involved in it?

My question is not simply political posturing. There has been some research on teaching effectiveness that suggests the "cafeteria" approach to something called "distribution requirements" does not really enable students to make connections among different disciplinary approaches to problems. Related research suggests that students more capable of making connections do better when it comes time to earning promotions. That business degree might get you in the door, but you might not move up as far.

So what is the state of affairs? A few years ago I participated in a program at Northern Illinois University to enable professors teaching general education courses to work with colleagues in other departments in order to set up a few such connections. There is a bit about that initiative still available on line. Go here, click "Highlights," and open "Plan One."

Here's where we were as of the summer of 2000:
Faculty members in different disciplines worked in three- or four-member teams to identify and effectively link their respective general education courses with the particular themes. The summer program also featured presentations by invited scholars, which included in-depth discussions of issues, strategies, and resources for general education transformation through thematic linkages. Subsequent workshops have drawn more and more faculty and are now a continuing part of college planning.

As of 2000, this initiative was continuing, but it appears to have been Overtaken By Other Events since then. Perhaps that contributes to my skepticism about new initiatives from the university administration. Things get started with a great deal of enthusiasm, people put in a lot of hours they could be spending on their research or other work or taking some downtime, and things then ... vanish.

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