Monday, April 26, 2004

Harvard University has just finished a thorough review of its undergraduate curriculum. The conclusion:

... students need more room for broad exploration, a greater familiarity with the world that can only be gained from study abroad, and a deeper, hands-on understanding of science.

After 15 months of study, a committee of administrators, professors and students has recommended that the university give students more time to choose their majors and limit the requirements for those majors, encourage students to spend time abroad and increase the number of required science courses.

That is a bad idea.

I believe the opposite should be done -- require students to select a major immediately and abolish all general requirements.

It all comes down to what you believe education should be. Historically, there was such a thing as an educated man. Back in the 18th century, this was someone who memorized Homer and Virgil in college and displayed more than a passing familiarity with Roman poetry and Greek drama. In the 19th century, an educated man read a lot fewer latin classics but much more English and continental literature. He was quite adept at recognizing references to Shakespeare at dinner parties.

There is no such thing as an educated man anymore. Knowledge has become fragmented and scholars have become specialized. Isaac Newton saw himself as an explorer of natural philosophy; it seemed only natural to him to write tracts on calculus, optics, and religion. His intellectual heirs in these diverse fields no longer talk to each other -- the very idea that someone who works in physics will publish scholarly monographs on religion seems ridiculous in this day and age.

Perhaps someone who has read the classic works of literature can be considered well-read? But what is a classic anyway? Who decides that a certain book represents the best of what has been thought and written? These are not pointless questions. To label something a classic is an exercise in authority -- authority that must derive from somewhere. Is there any theoretical basis that allows one to say that one book is better than another?

The idea of the classic is intellectually bankrupt. That certain books are remembered and others are forgotten says more about the community of scholars and writers charged with keeping the intellectual tradition than the books themselves (it is notable than in England the shift from Greek and Latin to English literature was driven in part by a desire to create a national identity). In fact, much of academic research in the recent past has followed along these lines, e.g. feminists arguing that the cannon has a tendency to exclude female writers, post-colonialists bring to light the works of non-Europeans, etc.

Perhaps an educated man is someone who is well-versed in the sciences? I am a scientist(-in-training) myself. Frankly, I find the idea that someone can be well-versed in the sciences ridiculous. There is no such thing as the sciences anymore. There is math and physics and biology and geology and so on. The connections between these fields exist, of course, but by and large they are separate disciplines. One can be well-versed in one area, but one cannot be well-versed in all of them -- it is simply too much to ask.

Forcing college students to dissect snails and make measurements with gyroscopes and mix fluids to observe chemical reactions won't make them any more educated. I should know. I've done all these things. And I've thoroughly forgotten the contents of the freshman laboratories where I've done these things.

Universities should stop trying to produce educated men -- a large crop of Harvard graduates who have vague notions about a variety of fields but no thorough grounding in any of them won't do the world any good. Universities need to become technical schools of sorts, producing graduates who know genetics but can't recognize a word of Shakespeare or maybe experts in history who couldn't do math to save their lives.


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