Second in a series on why U.S. Universities are great
Columbia University’s 1880 core curricula required a general understanding of the human condition. Coupled with training in specific disciplines it was the Holy Grail for U.S. universities. It may be time for a careful look at bachelor’s degrees.
Bachelors’ degrees must be simultaneously broader and more focused. This is not a conundrum, but a vision. A century ago, all bachelor’s degrees provided general learning. There was precision through established ideas and knowledge. Truth seemed simpler then, and more generally agreed to.
History, language, government, science, and math; all requirements for being an educated human being seem diluted today. The interest group smorgasbords jamming preferences into degree programs so every idea or political perspective has representation or agency are frightful, ineffective silliness. An academic administrator told me that students needed a life science elective so that they could make decisions about complex subjects such as when life starts and what is a human being. The purportedly wisest people on the planet, in its freest nation — the U.S. Supreme Court — cannot agree on this subject. Did the Justices not meet a life science requirement in their bachelor’s degrees?
Arguments regarding core curriculum suggest that courses configured around “great books” represent institutionalized racism. Over-parsing turns history into political science or, more troubling, public relations. Legitimate concerns exist, but studying history is not accepting or condoning past travesties: It illuminates those more fully so the past does not become the future except through clear, thoughtful, deliberative effort.
Dennis Prager’s recently released The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code has received many positive reviews. Should this thoughtful work be excised from curricula because it might be offensive to organized agnosticism? Shakespeare’s Othello provides harbor for racist perspectives, as does Twains’ Tom Sawyer. Eliminate them from the college experience? Not a good idea. According to PBS, these mirrors of human nature help us assess our own condition.
A more focused bachelor’s degree might be in order. Universities in many nations grant baccalaureate degrees in three years. Oxford and Cambridge are among them. These institutions are nearly 800 years old. They have experience. They are public too. Tuition and fees for EU students are currently about $25,000 per annum at either. Both institutions rank in the top ten worldwide. The average cost for a public U.S. research university B.A. or B.S. is $23,893, and $32,405 for private non-profits. Only eight of the 400 U.S. research institutions are in the top ten worldwide.
The implications of the “fourth” year are real. At Purdue, the cost of an extra year is $20,000. A graduate who might earn $35,000 in an entry-level position creates a total cost of $55,000 for the fourth year of study: $20,000 in expenditures and $35,000 in lost revenue generating opportunity. Is the impact on learning real?
U.S. institutions are successful but efficiencies are low and costs to state and student high. Undergraduate degrees need focus and vocational clarity along with essential general education requirements. One or the other alone is failure for university and student.
Here is a reflection on four years of study and work.
Year One: Transform the undergraduate experience into a three-year affair, with the first year being an intense and rigorous core curriculum. Offerings could occur on nights and weekends for nontraditional students. Too many graduates cannot do simple algebra, identify the three branches of government, state when the War of 1812 occurred, or understand the difference between biology and sociology. Cultivate.
Year Two: A year of study related to vocational preferences: whether its history, literature, physics, or engineering but only after satisfactory completion of the general curriculum. Focus.
Year Three: Work experience — earning a paycheck — in the chosen field, while simultaneously achieving a year of internet courses to prepare students for lifelong learning. Work.
Year Four: Return to campus for a combination of vocationally directed and general education offerings determined by a faculty mentor and the student, not a committee. Good faculty members aspire to serve students based on both general knowledge and viable skills. Vertex.
This combination of thinking and doing affects cost and effectiveness. Three years of traditional study coupled with the vocational exercise of knowledge and insight might help bring universities into the 21st century.
Moses descended Mount Sinai with Ten Commandments. There was no number eleven — a 4 year B.A. — chiseled into those stone tablets by God’s finger.
It is time to again look closely at the purpose and process of a bachelor’s degree.
photo credit: www.careerprofiles.info