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The problem that won’t go away

Bill Meredith

"It’s a Jumble out there."
- Randy Newman (misspelled on purpose)

(2/2018) If you live long enough and still are able to think, you come to a point where you realize it is time to start getting rid of things. This is both obvious and logical but, as they used to say, it aint easy. Twenty years ago when I retired, two walls of my office at home were covered with bookshelves. I don’t know how many books I had, but they filled the shelves and they were neatly arranged by subject and author. In my office at the college were a lot more books, plus 40 years of subscriptions to scientific journals and files of student records and committee work. All of that had to come home. You will not be surprised to learn that much of it is still in boxes on the floor of the office and in the basement. (Caution… don’t ask my wife about this unless you have at least an hour to spare.)

Over these 20 years of retirement my wife and I have had many interesting theoretical discussions over the relative merits of clearing up the mess, without actually reaching a conclusion and doing anything about it. However, recently I was reminded that in years to come the only thing future generations of descendants will know about me is what a mess I left behind. And so when the New Year arrived, I resolved to make a start at it.

In the good old days, it would have been simpler; I could have just carried boxes of old files out into the back yard and set fire to them, like my parents and grandparents did when things accumulated. There was a certain satisfaction to that; you could do it on a cool summer evening and sit there in a lawn chair and watch the smoke carry everything up to heaven where God would assign some penitent angel to decide whether each piece of paper was worth keeping. You could even roast marshmallows while you watched….

But you can’t do things like that any more. So, last week I took a deep breath and opened the top drawer of the filing cabinet. One of the first files I pulled out was the record of a committee I served on in the 1960s, and when I opened the folder, among the yellowing pages was a flood of nostalgia. The first thing that struck me was that of the eight people on the committee, I am the only one still living. So did it really matter? Who could possibly care? That was over 50 years ago! These are just pieces of paper… they’re ancient history now… we have more important things to deal with… but wait.

The committee had been formed to propose a revision of our Core Curriculum. It was in response to a national trend that had begun about five years earlier when the Space Program started. When Sputnik went up in 1957, the country’s first reaction was like Henny-Penny: "The sky is falling! We’re in a race with the Russians! …and they’re winning!" The national panic eased a little after John Glenn’s space flight, but there was growing national concern about keeping our educational programs ahead of the Russians. The Cold War was real. Colleges all over the country began reviewing their curricula, and there was a national debate on how much more emphasis should be put on science, math and technology.

The committee worked on it all summer; we proposed changing some of the graduation requirements, adding some new courses, and changing or eliminating some old ones. The college accepted our proposal. But the problem didn’t go away; it just changed a bit, and it came back again a few years later. In fact, it kept coming back; by the time I retired, I had worked on it with at least four more committees. Few people realized it then, but the country… in fact, the whole world… was entering a Paradigm Shift.*

I was just starting on my doctoral studies then; I had been teaching only five years. I was pretty naVve about the history of my profession, so working on that committee was an educational experience. I found that the problem of what colleges should teach is an ancient question that goes back at least to the 11th Century when the first universities were founded. Basically, it asks whether colleges should emphasize training students for specific careers, or should they emphasize teaching students to think, question and understand things?

The first piece of paper in my old folder was a clipping from the national journal, Science. Slightly paraphrased, it said:

Traditionally in our culture the bachelor’s degree is the last chance students have to be taught anything outside their professional field, and an opportunity to select their major field. It is a disservice to the students to teach in college the technical skills of any single profession.

This was written in 1964 by a man named Martin Brilliant, who worked for the Management-Consulting firm of Booz-Allen. "An appropriate name," I thought, "but when he works for a firm like that, why does he think colleges should emphasize Liberal Arts instead of technical training?" I didn’t understand then, because I didn’t know about Paradigm Shifts yet. Now… well, I’m still trying to learn.

A Paradigm is a unifying idea that we use to explain several related things. As time goes by we often find that this explanation doesn’t work as well as it used to, and eventually we have to shift to a new paradigm. In this case, it concerned the way we communicate. Historically, you can trace it from yodeling and smoke signals from mountaintops, to trumpets and warhorns, to written messages bearing wax imprints of a stamp, to telephones and radios, to tweets on a pocket computer. The last on the list sounds silly, but in the past 20 years it has become available to more than half of the world’s population… and it has changed the way we think about education.

The Liberal Arts Education was almost universal among colleges until the 1940s. Students took an array of courses in history, literature, fine arts, modern languages, natural and social sciences; and from these, as well as a few subjects like accounting, they were expected to select a major field that would prepare them for a career. After the War, the GI Bill encouraged veterans to go to college; they were older and more mature, and often had already chosen careers, so colleges were encouraged to exempt them from some of the Liberal Arts courses, based on their travels and wartime experiences.

A demand developed for more emphasis on career training, and institutions which offered specialized curricula for careers and required few or no Liberal Arts courses began to appear; and then, in the early ‘80s when desktop computers became available, on-line courses appeared. Many of them were legitimate, but others were not acceptable by colleges that were accredited to give Bachelor’s degrees. Now, it is possible to get a Bachelor’s degree in which all of the courses were taken on the internet.

Theoretically, I see no reason why a particular course could not be just as rigorous on the internet as one taught in a classroom. However, I believe the experience of sitting in front of a live teacher, asking questions and debating with fellow students is vital to developing the mind, and I do not see how this can be achieved by sitting alone before a computer with the TV on, music blasting, and a cell phone tweeting. College-age students are neither smarter nor dumber than they always have been; but without education in the Liberal Arts areas and the ability to reason, question, and judge the value of the information before them, they are easily misled. And they will stay that way as they grow into adulthood. Easily led? Look around you.

Please excuse me now… I have to get back to my office and deal with those old folders….

Read other articles by Bill Meredith