To be candid, you run the risk at New College that you will over-specialize or that you will omit from your program some curriculum component that you will later wish you had obtained. But as a New College student you have the advantage of knowing that your education is truly your education, with all the challenge and excitement implied.How much of an "advantage" that is is open to question. While many would agree that experience is indeed the crucial factor needed to plan an educational program, probably fewer would agree with the assumption that an 18-year-old has enough of this experience to determine what he or she will or will not need for the next half century or so of a life and a career. Nor is consultation with other inexperienced classmates much of a solution. It is like trying to draw a map of a road you have never travelled. According to the philosophy of New College, those who have travelled the road are only to offer advice—and this only from faculty, with parents totally ignored. However, New College is by no means alone in this approach.
For opposite reasons, neither New College nor the Florida Institute of Technology has "distribution requirements" prescribing a diversity of general areas (science, humanities, etc.) that a student must study. Most colleges have distribution requirements but they vary in how these requirements are administered. If a science requirement can be met by taking psychology rather than physics, then the curriculum means much less in practice than in theory. If "exceptions" are granted freely, then the rule means nothing. Whether you prefer a curriculum that is strict or loose, it needs to be checked out by a careful reading of the college catalogue and by asking questions about it in person if you make a campus visit. "How hard is it to get exceptions?" is a good question to put to college officials—and to students. Their answers may differ.
My own view is that those who have travelled the road need to guide those who have not. Only in a few fields like engineering does this need to mean specification of each course. But a liberal arts education means equipping a person for life—which is to say, for many unknown contingencies, like a soldier preparing to go into battle. No one knows exactly how the battle will go, but those who have been through many battles should know some of the basic requirements. You can't go in unarmed, or with no means of caring for wounds, or with nothing to eat or drink—or with no discipline.
As an undergraduate, I despised French and crammed to pass a comprehensive examination which exempted me from having to take any more courses in the subject. It was a great relief to be rid of it. But, a decade later, my research required me to read 5 volumes in French because the material I needed was simply not available in English. Nearly 20 years after that, while studying an entirely different field, I once again found that the key information I needed was available only in a study published in French and never translated. As an undergraduate deciding whether or not to study French, I had no inkling of the topics I would be working on in future decades, much less whether or not they would require reading French. A student is usually in no position to judge "relevance" until years later, when it is far too late.
The abandonment of distribution requirements—and many other academic rules—that has occurred in many places since the 1960s may reflect changing opinions on the curriculum. It may also in some cases reflect simply an abdication of responsibility by colleges and universities. Students may be allowed to "do their own thing" simply because that is the path of least resistance for academic administrators and faculty members.
Not all colleges without formal distribution requirements have abandoned students to their fate, nor are all students going to take an unrelated scattering of courses if permitted to. The later academic success of New College students—a higher percentage go on to Ph.D.'s than students at Yale or Stanford—suggests that some very serious and responsible thought goes into their individual programs. But this cannot be assumed everyhere.
Just as distribution requirements mean less when exceptions are
permitted, so an absence of distribution requirements may mean less when
faculty advice is both given and taken responsibly. In both cases, it is
necessary to look beyond the immediate formalities.
Another important trend in recent years has been the growth and proliferation of so-called "interdisciplinary" courses and majors. There are very few truly interdisciplinary courses such as physical chemistry (which requires mastery of the principles of physics and the principles of chemistry) or econometrics (which requires mastery of the principles of economics and the principles of statistical analysis). Most of what are called "interdisciplinary" courses and majors are in fact non-disciplinary. In some places, you can major in Southeast Asian Studies but Southeast Asia is a geographic region, not a set of intellectual principles like mathematics or logic. If you studied the Balkans instead, you would be using the same intellectual processes.
To confuse a subject matter (however fascinating) with an intellectual discipline is to undermine the whole point of an education. Mere information can be gotten from any almanac or encyclopedia. An education includes a discipline, a structured way of thinking. Mathematics is not just a subject matter; it is a particular way of organizing your thinking. A mathematician and an interior decorator can both talk about space, but they talk about it in different ways.
Classes in some of the newer "interdisciplinary" fields like ethnic studies or women's studies have become notorious for degenerating into "rap sessions." That seldom happens in physics or chemistry because these are disciplines with an inherent structure of their own.
This is not an argument against studying certain subjects. There has been outstanding scholarship and teaching on the subject of black Americans, for example, for decades before the first Black Studies department was created. More than half a century ago, such distinguished scholars as Carter G. Woodson did studies on the subject as an historian, E. Franklin Frazier as a sociologist, and Abram L. Harris as an economist. Each had his own discipline and taught in a corresponding department to students learning the respective discipline. None of them taught courses that could be described as an Afro- American Studies seminar at Princeton was described in the Student Course Guide there as "simply a 3-hour 'rap session'"—one where there were "few students who did the assigned readings" and where the grading was "arbitrary" and "random." Other courses in the same department received similar comments.
Such comments apply to many such courses in other places besides Princeton, and in other "interdisciplinary" fields besides Afro-American Studies. "Women's Studies," "Environmental Studies," or "Peace Studies," can likewise all be taught either as rap sessions or as serious exercises in some particular discipline—which is to say that none of them is itself a discipline, much less a combination of disciplines.
It is not the subject matter of a course but its intellectual structure that determines whether or not it is part of some discipline. At Stanford, for example, a course called "Race and Ethnic Relations" is listed as part of its program in African and Afro-American Studies, but it is still Sociology 145—in concept as well as in name. The heavyweight readings make it clear that this is no rap session. But, in case anyone misses the message, the syllabus states on the first page that this course is about "explaining phenomena in a rigorous, scientific sense," that mere "empathy" for this or that group is not the point. Anyone familiar with the professor who teaches the course is unlikely to think that this is mere talk. He is teaching a course in his discipline.
The point of all this is that the label "interdisciplinary" covers such a wide range of possibilities as to be almost meaningless. Where it is literally true—where the intellectual principles of two or more fields are used in combination—there are likely to be very difficult and demanding courses, like physical chemistry or econometrics. But the term is seldom used in this sense by those advocating "interdisciplinary" studies. All too often, so-called "interdisciplinary" courses and programs represent an abandonment of any discipline, substituting enthusiasm for some subject or for some ideologically preconceived conclusions about that subject. It is these kinds of "interdisciplinary" courses which lend themselves to becoming rap sessions among the true believers. A third possibility—a program which simply includes courses drawn from a variety of specific disciplines-can more readily escape this fate, but that program does not itself constitute a discipline, and a degree in such a program would indicate little or nothing about the student's mastery of some intellectual process.
From a practical point of view, what matters about a college with many "interdisciplinary" programs and majors is just what kind of courses these are in reality. It matters not only to those who intend to take these courses but also to those who don't. A college which abdicates its responsibility to students by setting up phoney "rap session" courses is a college whose commitment to education in general may be questionable.
The best way to find out whether these courses are for real is
to ask students and faculty members from other fields
during a campus visit. You can expect more candid answers, the more you
are able to question each individual privately and "off the record." Students
and faculty from more traditional fields, especially fields with a demanding
intellectual structure of their own (chemistry, math, economics), are in
an especially good position to tell you whether the "interdisciplinary"
courses have real structure and substance. Even when you have to ask your
questions in a group, if the answer is hesitant, tense, and phrased in
weasel words, that sometimes tells you all you need to know—especially
if the same person has been very glib in giving you answers to other questions.
Like brain surgery, teaching is one of those things that can go on right before your eyes without your really understanding what is happening. Everyone who is ready for college has already seen so many teachers that familiarity may create a false sense of understanding.
Some aspects of teaching can be readily understood, and these are sometimes important aspects. A teacher who is chronically late for class, unprepared, impatient with questions, and disorganized in presentation is clearly bad news. There are too many professors like that, at all academic levels, including some of the most prestigious universities. You can spot these kinds of professors with the naked eye, and you should make a note of how many of them you encounter when you sit in on various college classes during a campus visit.
Most students try to avoid such professors like the plague, so there is only a limited amount of damage they can do. A much more serious threat to education is the fluent, interesting, perhaps even charismatic, professor who fundamentally misconceives his own subject. He can attract students in droves—and pass on his confusions to class after class, year after year. Such professors may get rave reviews from students because anyone who already understood the subject well enough to judge would have no reason to take the course. Only those few students who continue on to more advanced levels in the same field are likely to have any way to reassess what they were taught—and this reassessment may occur years after they have graduated. By then, of course, it will do them no good, nor will it help students still being fed the great performer's misconceptions.
One of the most important tasks of a teacher takes place long before the first class meeting. This is canvassing the vast material that might possibly be presented to determine what small fraction of it is crucial, and structuring its presentation to maximize the student's understanding of the subject. Students are not present while this is going on and would not know how to judge how well the professor did this job if they were. When I taught labor economics at Douglass College a quarter of a century ago, one of my students was a young lady whose boy friend was also taking labor economics at Princeton. They discovered that there was absolutely no overlap between the two courses. She seemed astonished that courses with the same name did not have a single topic in common.
Knowing who taught labor economics at Princeton at that time, I was not the least bit surprised. But the students were not only puzzled but disturbed. More important, they had no way of knowing which of us had completely misconceived what labor economics was all about. The kind of labor economics taught at Princeton at that time has long since disappeared, not only at Princeton but elsewhere as well. But unless these students went on to postgraduate work in economics, or otherwise kept in touch with the field for some special reason, they probably do not understand, to this moment, why the two courses were so different.
This is not an unusual situation. For example, one of the leading
lights in the economics of industrial organization teaches at Swarthmore
College. But his syllabus contains no assigned readings from economists
who are leading lights in the opposite school of thought in industrial
organization—which happens to be a school of thought that is displacing
his. All that the Swarthmore students can judge is how well their professor
conducts his class and how interesting the readings are that he assigns.
If they had a copy of the syllabus for industrial organization as it is
taught at Rice, Princeton, or the University of Washington, they might
discover an entirely different perspective on the subject. But seldom,
if ever, are the students at any institution able to assess a course in
terms of what has been left out—and yet that may be the most important
fact about the course.
Indoctrination and Irresponsibility
One-sided presentations are the rule rather than the exception in some fields or in some subjects, such as Marxism, race, feminism, or "peace studies." An all too common pattern is that found in a course called "Introduction to Marxian Economics" at the University of Texas in Austin. The syllabus is full of the writings of Marx and Engels and latter-day Marxists—but not one writing from any of the many critics of Marxism. According to the syllabus: "The course as a whole provides you with an opportunity to learn how to view the world from a new point of view and the tests are aimed at evaluating whether and to what degree you have learned to do this." In short, it is not Marxism that is to be examined critically, but the United States and the world through Marxist eyes—and the student is to be graded on how well he or she does that. Moreover, this requirement is termed an "opportunity"!
This approach is by no means peculiar to this particular course at the University of Texas. At many institutions, courses on Marxism are taught by Marxists, some of whom openly admit that how well the student learns to criticize American society from a Marxian perspective determines the grade that will be given. They profess to see nothing wrong with this, either intellectually or ethically. According to a New York University Marxist professor, "a correct understanding of Marxism (or any body of scientific thought) leads automatically to its acceptance."
The question is not whether the professor, the student, or the parent likes Marxism. The question is whether teaching has been betrayed by being turned into indoctrination.
The same question can be asked in other areas and at all too many other institutions. The Harvard Students' Confidential Guide describes lectures in a course called "Women and the Law" as containing a "shallow, one-sided description of the facts of the cases, the lawyers' arguments, the feminist perspective, and little else." The course provides "little opportunity for debate or original thinking." Propaganda courses often give easy grades to attract a following, and this course seems to fit the pattern: "It's virtually impossible to do badly when exam time comes around," according to The Confidential Guide, and the term paper "can be about any topic you can think of that is even remotely related to the course's topic."
Similarly, at Dartmouth, a music class that features the professor's rambling political commentary, expressed in abusive obscenities, is also considered "a notable gut." At American University in Washington, D.C., a professor was let go after it became known that he allowed students to grade themselves in his ideologically-oriented course.
Another dimension of teaching is responsibility—something that should be taken for granted but cannot be. Irresponsible self-indulgence by professors takes many forms. A Harvard professor who wastes most of a geology lecture talking about the World Series and wastes other lectures on similar irrelevancies represents just one of these forms. The Harvard Students' Confidential Guide says of his course: "You will be going to the most expensive theater show of your life—a couple thousand bucks to watch a famous guy stroke his ego in front of 300 students."
A biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin is described in the September 1987 issue of Texas Review, a student publication, as "prone to spontaneous outbursts about nearly anything with no relation to the previous subject." He "tends to ramble" and often "degenerates into vulgarity," suggesting "a dirty old man." Another biology professor there "starts every class by playing his favorite ditties (by Gershwin and Brubeck) to the students while waddling sleepily across the stage." He suddenly "without warning" turns on "eye-popping slides of female genitalia onto the cinema-sized screen," making such accompanying remarks as "this is not my wife" and "I did not take these pictures, ha, ha."
Another University of Texas professor, in history, has a different kind of self-indulgence—using sewer language, which he then leads his class in repeating, as he vents his anger over current political issues, while supposedly teaching the pre-Civil War history of the United States. According to the Texas Review, a whole week was taken up showing the class slides of poverty-stricken Americans taken during the Great Depression, even though this was hardly in the pre-Civil War era. Chronology meant little in a course which "lacked continuity and consistency," where the professor went on "talking about various subjects at whim," and where a whole lecture period was spent denouncing the Reagan administration's foreign policy—again, in a course on the pre-Civil War era.
At Arizona State University, the difference between what a political science course was supposed to cover and what it actually consisted of was even greater. According to the catalogue description, the course was about political ideologies, such as conservativism, liberalism and Marxism. But, according to students who actually took the course, it consisted primarily of the professor's own anti-nuclear views, together with his concerns over the environment and population. Only one of six books required for the course dealt with political ideologies at all, most of the others being anti-nuclear or environmentalist tracts. The class was also shown two movies on nuclear war. The issue is not the merits of this professor's opinions, but the bait- and-switch advertising of a course on one subject when in fact it was on an entirely different subject.
Not all irresponsible self-indulgence by professors goes to this extreme or is so obviously ideological indoctrination. But when a course on American history at Knox College assigns a futuristic novel by Edward Bellamy and parts of another novel, The Wizard of Oz, you know that something is wrong. Anyone familiar with Bellamy's novel knows that it does not even pretend to deal with history but is simply his vision of what a socialist Utopia would be like. This thinly disguised political tract is also required reading in American history at Franklin & Marshall College.
One of my most painful experiences during campus visits was listening to a completely one-sided presentation of the role of women in the labor force in a class on American history at Willamette University in Oregon. Not a word said, by professor or students, suggested any awareness that there were alternative views or counter-evidence on any of the issues under discussion. One or two true believers enthusiastically supplied whatever class discussion there was, while the other students sat in utter silence with blank expressions. It had all the earmarks of propaganda and passive resistance. On many campuses, those out of step with the prevailing ideology learn early on that it is taboo to challenge the anointed. (Not all classes at Willamette were like this. The syllabus for one economics course featured several assignments each from John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman, which is about as diverse as you can get.)
Many of the examples of ideological indoctrination involve professors on the political left, which leads to much confused and misleading rhetoric about "liberal bias" on the one hand or "McCarthyism" on the other. At this particular juncture in history, the great majority of professors are politically liberal or left, so that if you counted faculty members who use contact lenses or wear blue suits, most would turn out to be liberal or left, though that has nothing to do with contact lenses or clothing. The professor's opinions are his own business; his behavior in class is what others have a right to be concerned about—and in some cases, outraged about.
Where the teaching itself is done competently, responsibly, and honestly, the professor's opinions are irrelevant, whether those opinions be conservative, liberal, or Marxist. For example, liberal professors at the University of California at San Diego receive high praise from the conservative student newspaper there. Not only are individual liberal professors described by the conservative California Review as "well respected," or "a great teacher"; the faculty as a whole is complimented for its fair- mindedness: "Papers and essays with a rightward tilt have been evaluated fairly and equally to the assignments of left-leaning students," according to the California Review. Its "worst professor on campus award" went not to an ideological foe but to a professor of physics whose English was hard to understand and whose math was often wrong.
The conservative Texas Review likewise gave praise in its September 1987 issue to some liberal-left professors and criticized a conservative professor for expecting students "to toe his line in tests" in a course that "reeks of ideological indoctrination." It makes a similar charge against some professors at the other end of the spectrum, saying, "in most classes conducted by liberals, those desirous of a good grade should be well- practised parrots in exams." Of a chemistry professor, Texas Review said: "Like most science professors, he thankfully does not burden students with his political views." In short, they—like the California Review—see the issue not as one of whose politics you agree with but who takes seriously the responsibility of being a teacher.
Some professors attempt to escape the responsibility of informing students on both sides of issues by saying that "everybody" is biased and that they are simply being more "open" or "honest" about it. In many such cases, the bias is so gross that the professor could not possibly conceal it anyway, so whatever credit he gets (or takes) for open-ness or honesty is unearned. For example, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts declared: "I am biased. I'm not going to give you both sides to every question." His course "will be consistently anti-American," he said. "This is not a course that is going to make you happy to be an American." This common type of "justification" for indoctrination contains such classic fallacies that it is worth analyzing for a moment.
The purpose of education is not to make you "happy" or unhappy about any subject but to make you informed. Deliberate omissions on one side are the antithesis of this. Everyone no doubt has a viewpoint. "Bias" is not simply having a viewpoint but making that viewpoint over-ride other considerations and responsibilities. Sports announcer Frank Gifford may well have a soft spot in his heart for his old football team, the N.Y. Giants. But if his broadcast left out the fact that another team scored a touchdown against the Giants, everyone would consider it outrageous and dishonorable.
Education is at least as important as a football game.
Although students are able to detect gross neglect or irresponsibility by professors, their general inability to assess professional competence means that direct observation is often inadequate or deceptive. One of the reasons for the "publish or perish" rule for professors is that they need to be forced to demonstrate their understanding of their subject to their peers, who are professionally competent to judge. Liberal arts colleges do not expect their faculty to publish at the frantic pace found in some research universities, but professors at good liberal arts colleges usually publish something-perhaps an undergraduate textbook in their subject, or an occasional article in a scholarly journal. A study cited in the November/December 1986 issue of Change magazine showed that the faculty of 48 leading liberal arts colleges published 7,000 journal articles over a five-year period-nearly one- third of them co-authored with students.
Such scholarly activity is not the rule for all professors or at all colleges. Sometimes years—or even decades—can go by without a single sign of scholarly life from a professor, in which case the faculty can easily fall behind the development of their fields. They may be wonderful at teaching what was known or believed 20 years ago—and the students have no way of realizing it. Such obsolescence occurs not only in fast-changing fields like computer science but even in subjects like ancient history, where new archaeological discoveries, old manuscripts unearthed, or new statistical techniques can completely change what was once believed about a whole era of the past.
The shortcomings of undergraduate education at many outstanding research universities might seem to refute the idea that scholarship and good teaching are related. But, like many things that are beneficial in moderation, complete preoccupation with scholarly research can become detrimental to undergraduate education beyond some point. The more basic problem, however, is not simply that some great scholars can't or won't teach well.
At many universities, the great scholarly professors are not the
ones doing most of the undergraduate teaching, in the first place. Often
the real problem is one of bait-and-switch education. Harvard does not
owe its prestige to its assistant professors or to its graduate students
who teach most of its introductory calculus courses. When students are
attracted to Harvard by its prestige, they are often likely to be taught
by those who had nothing to do with creating it. The classroom shortcomings
of those who created the school's research prestige are only part of the
problem, and not necessarily the most serious part.
Colleges not only educate in the classical liberal arts sense, but also prepare students to earn a living after they graduate. Historically, many colleges, including Harvard, began as places to prepare men for careers as religious ministers. Today, the ideal of the liberally educated person is often at war with the practice of preparing people to become engineers, nurses, or accountants. While education in the liberal arts can accompany training for any profession, the time demands of subjects like engineering may crowd other subjects toward the periphery, in terms of the number of courses taken, the time devoted to them, and the interest shown in them. The Carnegie Council makes a formal distinction between the purely liberal arts college and the "comprehensive" college which offers vocational programs (nursing, accounting, teacher training) or pre-professional programs (pre-law, pre-med, pre-business) along with liberal arts programs.
Often, however, vocationalism is a state of mind moreso than something visible in the curriculum. Even at a purely liberal arts college with no formal pre-med program, the pre-medical student who takes tough courses in biology and chemistry and shops for the easiest courses available in sociology or history to fill out his program has made his own personal choice for vocationalism. This is not essentially different from what happens at a "comprehensive" college when a pre-business student chooses to take all the economics, accounting, and marketing courses available, leaving philosophy and foreign languages for those who want to stop and smell the roses. The absence or near-absence of distribution requirements at many institutions facilitates such pre-professionalism, regardless of whether the institution is labelled "liberal arts" or "comprehensive." That formal distinction seems more misleading than useful and so will not be applied in this book.
Where a college has a fine liberal arts curriculum that all its students take, and take interest in, it is pointless to call it anything other than a liberal arts college, even if it has a program in pre-med or pre-law. From an intellectual standpoint, such programs are usually at least as rigorous as "inter-disciplinary" programs that no one seems to think compromises the "liberal arts" designation. However, the distinction between a pervasive pre-professional atmosphere on campus and an intellectual, liberal arts atmosphere can be important, even if labels or curriculum alone do not enable you to make an easy formal distinction.
Because of the subjective aspect of pre-professionalism, it is sometimes hard to distinguish the true liberal-arts institution from its pre-professional look-alike, where liberal arts subjects are not taken seriously. Nevertheless, the difference is important, even if subjective. If subjects like logic, astronomy, and music excite you, then you are likely to find fewer kindred souls in a college where the "practical" predominates in people's thinking. Indeed, some of the more intellectual subjects may not be taught at all, or not taught by top professors—either because of the college's priorities or because outstanding professors tend to drift away when they sense student disinterest in their field.
If you have little interest in abstract subjects, but want to get on with preparing for a career, a college dedicated to liberal arts in fact as well as in name may have strict distribution requirements that put you through many difficult and time-consuming courses in subjects that have no meaning for you. Sometimes these subjects will acquire meaning, but for some people they never will. The point here is simply that pre-professional vocationalism and an intellectual liberal arts orientation are substantially different, even though they are not formally distinguished in the names of the colleges, except for engineering schools.
Some colleges and universities, at various academic levels, have strong reputations as pre-professional schools (Franklin & Marshall, Simmons, Drexel), while others are known for their intellectual, liberal arts orientations (Chicago, Oberlin, Pomona). Because there are no explicit, formal labels that really distinguish between pre-professional and other liberal arts colleges and universities, these differences have to be checked out college by college, but it is well worth the effort if your own orientation is strongly in one direction or the other. For those who are not sure, there are many colleges and universities that are also not sure.
Some colleges are vocational in more concrete terms. They may be vocational in the sense of having many courses or departments in graphic arts, nursing, journalism, accounting, physical therapy, fashion design, or social work, for example. Where such courses dominate the curriculum, questions may be raised, not only about the quantity but also the quality of the liberal arts courses, because it is hard to have a first-rate liberal arts program where most students are preoccupied with other things. If your own preoccupation is with the vocation you wish to pursue, it may be worth questioning whether you should be pursuing it in a college at all, if there are specialized schools which can provide the same skills as well or better, and without the distraction of liberal arts courses that are watered down.
Those students who are intellectually oriented need not, of course, abandon all thought of how they will support themselves after graduation. Some majors, such as mathematics, offer promising careers, though others such as English usually mean bleak prospects in the job market. However, an English major who has taken some courses in computer science may find it easier to get started on a career.
Many of those with strong intellectual interests in fields such as chemistry, philosophy, or economics will of course continue to pursue those interests in graduate school and go on to become scholars. Others will seek professional degrees in law, business, and other fields—including, if they have taken the right science courses, medicine. No one needs to be pre-law or pre-med to go on to law school or medical school, and some business schools prefer that you not major in business as an undergraduate. Where the chosen career—as economist, philosopher, or chemist, for example—requires graduate training, then the student should feel especially free to use the undergraduate years as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the broadest and best foundation in liberal arts, in order to be an educated person as well as a professional practitioner.
Those whose formal education will end with college graduation
should legitimately be concerned with earning a living the rest of their
lives. That doesn't mean that they can't get a liberal arts education but
only that it should include something that will help them become self-supporting.
The students who get the worst of both worlds are those who get neither
an intellectual discipline nor a professional skill from college but instead
specialize in some fashionable "interdisciplinary" field like ethnic or
women's studies, which leads nowhere intellectually or vocationally, and
whose fashion already shows signs of waning.
Copyright 1989 by Thomas Sowell
Reprinted with permission