“Live and Learn,” Louis Menand, The New Yorker, June 6, 2011
Why are liberal arts courses still required for students who more and more are focused toward a specific job requiring specific knowledge, such as for engineering, medicine, and teaching? A college degree is often required even to be a state policeman or a registered nurse.
One theory of education says that college is essentially a four-year intelligence test that fulfills a need in society for sorting out its more intelligent members. At one time, students could directly enroll in medical or law school without a bachelor’s degree, but now the prerequisite college degree, in almost any subject, is a way to efficiently select the best students for the limited openings. This was the common function of the Ivy League university where the author first taught. If you like this theory, then it doesn’t matter what courses a student takes as long as they are rigorous enough for the selection process to work. All that matters are the grades and the reputation of the university. The current trend to “dummy down” grades (give everyone an “A” just for showing up) is a threat to followers of this theory.
Another theory of education, prominent at public universities, states that students who are pursuing specific career paths for their practical rewards will, given a choice, only learn what they need to know for success. Required liberal arts courses are to teach them things they are unlikely to learn on their own. By doing this, college takes students with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them in line with the mainstream norms of reason and taste. Every educated adult should know certain information, and college is the best delivery system to get that information into their heads. If you like this theory, then the only thing that matters is what the students actually learn.
Either theory can be applied to the student who now needs a bachelor’s degree to become a state trooper, or, in my case, a chemistry major who took required liberal arts courses in art history and philosophy. Since 1945, American higher education has been committed to both theories.
Some would say that the utility of all courses is to ultimately teach the student to think critically, reason analytically, and to communicate clearly. But does this happen? Not always, according to a recent study. Students were assigned the task of advising an employer on the desirability of buying a company airplane with a poor accident record. They were to write a memo based on news articles, FAA reports, and similar documents they were given, and the memos were graded for critical thinking and writing. The test was given to two thousand freshmen, and again two years later. Forty-five percent showed no improvement after the two years of college. Those majoring in liberal arts fields improved the most. Students in business, the number one major today, improved the least.
The author’s discussion of education also apply to our high school’s division of the classes into the distributive education (DE) students and the academic students. The DE students could also have asked Mr. Moore why they had to read Robert Frost’s poems. (See posting of June 28, 2007, School Motto—One Last Time)