What an Undergraduate Education Should Be
02 January 2017 | Pago Pago, American Samoa
Ms. Z contends “[I]f your degree is in a hard science, by the time you take the required English classes, a foreign language and a couple lower level social science classes, that's all the extraneous class work you have time for. There isn't time for (or economic argument for) a classical education any more."
Mr A writes, Much undergraduate education “is basically 'generic.’ Just a whole lot of definitions, calculations, sort of stupid exercises. They never get to the 'good stuff.’ I do think people have to know the basics of any field. but current structure of academia is basically 'hoop jumping'----you see who can survive 4 years of boring exercises and then if they get to grad school or are lucky they get to see interesting stuff---not just rote calculations, endless vocabularies."
Kimball Corson: We are citizens first and secondarily what we are trained to be as specialists. The first is an argument for a liberal education; the second, for undergraduate majors and graduate study. Curriculums are compromised because it is not known in advance whether a student will pursue graduate study. The assumption tends to be he won’t which is why undergraduates specialize in at least the last two years of a four year program.
A broad exposure is important, regardless. Chicago’s first year used to require all students take a year (three quarters) of calculus or other equally advanced math (3 hrs), a year of art history (2 hrs), a year of western civilization (3 hrs), two years of a language, starting in the first year (3 hrs), a year of Literature (3 hrs) and a year of science (physics, chemistry, biology or the like. 3 hrs), all with no remedial or catch-up work.
The second year looked much the same, but without the art history and a social science sequence (usually a year of economics) added instead of an additional year of math. Then you were deemed equipped well enough to choose your major. The arts, humanities and sciences were all balanced. Columbia’s program was similar.
The insistence was on a good liberal education. You were a citizen first. And I do not think that insistence was misplaced. However, most students are not up to such a program today which is partly why admission has become very selective at top schools. High school remedial work plugs up the undergraduate programs of most lesser universities now. Also, not even all top schools do so well. Harvard has, for many years been criticized on what a sloppy, lax and poor program it has for its undergraduates, but faculty have not been able to agree on any significant reforms. But the idea exists on what a good program should look like for students who were prepared.
The idea becomes stifled by credit for remedial high school work, undergraduate business and accounting majors and faculties who don’t care and let the students take what they want. The results are disastrous. Undergraduate degrees are depreciated; students are not prepared for graduate study; and liberal and science educations are badly compromised.
It is true that much undergraduate education must be survey work and studies, and, as Mr A argues, ‘Just a whole lot of definitions, calculations, sort of stupid exercises.’ But frameworks must be established and learned as a foundation for more advanced study or the “good stuff” to come later, if there is a later for a student. Also, good faculty always have ways of easing the drudgery here. There is just a huge basic quantum of knowledge that has to be learned as foundational to any good arts and sciences education. To slight either is a compromise.
Beyond that, the rest can be learned, on a more specialized basis, in graduate school. But the word of advice is be careful of what you miss. You can easily regret it later. Get what is needed as foundational to later learning on your own is good counsel.