Sitting through the ads?

It seems likely that higher education in the USA will undergo massive changes over the next few years. I have no idea what those will be, and suspect they will be very, very bad.

One change that might be good would be an inversion of the usual schedule of courses undergraduates have been expected to take for the last 120 years. The pattern has been that they take a wide variety of courses in their first year, that the focus tightens a bit more narrowly in the second year, and that they spend the final two years concentrating on their major field of study.

This is something like the experience of going to a cinema. You sit through a bunch of miscellaneous material promoting upcoming films, urging you to buy things at the concession stand, and advertising various other goods and services, as well as warning you to behave yourself and refrain from pirating the movie or distracting your fellow movie-goers. Then you are allowed to pay attention to the feature presentation.

Colleges and universities fret endlessly about ways to fashion a coherent experience out of the courses students take in their first two years. At the same time, the faculty who teach those courses are pressured to use them to recruit students to sign up for the majors their departments offer. The result is that students emerge from the Core Curriculum or General Education or Distribution Requirements or whatever they happen to be called at the moment with the feeling that they’ve just spent a couple of years and a great deal of tuition money listening to people try to sell them stuff they didn’t want. It’s no wonder so few college graduates object when state governments defund academic programs; on the contrary, it’s amazing that states still operate institutions of higher education at all.

Now, suppose it were turned round the other way. You take courses in your major for the first two years; the third year you do several small-scale supervised projects in your major field and take courses in closely related fields; in the fourth year you do a larger scale supervised project in your field and take courses in a wide range of fields. For the last 25 years, I’ve been teaching in the Core Curriculum at a state university in the midwestern USA; most of my students are in their first two years, and most of them are 19. Plenty of students in those categories wind up with A’s, but it is the more advanced undergrads and the students who are in their 30s and older who usually have the most fun and contribute the most to class discussion. The advanced undergrads, both because they are confident that they know how to succeed in college, and because they know enough about their majors to see how they connect with other disciplines; the older students, because the authors to whose work I introduce them in the ancient Greek and Latin literature in translation courses were writing for grown-ups, and those students have the life experiences those authors expected their readers to bring with them.

As the years have gone by and tuition has spiraled up, the older students have become a rarity. If the best-case scenario for the future comes to pass and US colleges and universities either stop charging tuition altogether, or at least lower it to the same percentage of median household income it was a couple of decades ago, they might come back. If they do, I should think they would benefit from concentrating on their majors first, then doing other courses. People who’ve been away from school for a long time are often nervous about resuming the role of student. If they can get that nervousness out of the way while doing something they already know they want to do, they’ll be at their peak coming into subjects that hadn’t been on their radar. They will then get the full benefit of those courses, and their classmates and teachers will benefit from association with them.

Likewise with advanced undergrads of the usual late teens- early twenties cohort. Taking courses outside their major when they have a grip on their major and are looking forward to the next stage of their lives, they should be able to see that, however important their specialty is, there are other forms of expertise, and those forms have something to offer as well.

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