In defense of making students study things they don’t always want to

I will be the first to admit that the student-as-consumer model of education that is touted by some university administrators drives me batty. This is not to suggest that I think that the needs and goals of students ought to be irrelevant to how we plan our classes or what we teach. Far from it. However, the model as it is propagated by much of the admin-speak that seeks to optimize university educations and lure students in often implies that students know best what they want and need to learn, and it is our job to deliver precisely what students want.

I would like to counter that consumer-demand principle with a small observation: I did not enjoy learning fractions much in school as a child. If given a choice about what to learn in math, or given a say in what we were taught, I would have opted out of fractions. But the kicker is, of course, that I continue to use fractions almost every single day.

And I’m an English professor.

I use them when I bake and when I dole out the remaining jelly beans to my children and their friends and when I calculate how many miles to the gallon my ten-year-old car is getting in this very cold weather. Fractions, though not what I would have chosen to learn, are necessary to adult life.

Even in subject matter that I perennially loved–reading and writing–I took classes in which I was required to read things, sometimes excruciatingly long things, that I would have preferred to avoid. (Where “preferred to avoid” means I would have chosen to do really almost anything else but finish Moby Dick if I could have. Apologies to Americanists everywhere.) And yet, for all that I also hated post-modern angsty books or Hemingway’s hyper-masculine tales, these books were all indispensable to my literary education. Hemingway’s brilliantly spare style surely taught me much about the varieties of cadence and quality of prose in English that I could not have learned from my beloved Charlotte Bronte alone.

All of which is to say that I think that students do not always know what they need to know, or even what they will enjoy. And, in fact, I think there are many many merits to requiring students to take classes in subject matter that is beyond their comfort zone because the purpose of education is to broaden horizons and deepen knowledge, not merely to confirm that we like what we already knew we liked. Along the way, we will certainly encounter things we do not enjoy. But that does not mean that giving those things credence, expending intellectual energy considering them seriously, is a waste of time.

I have been thinking a lot about how to define the purpose of education in the past few weeks. Do we want our educational institutions to disseminate specific content or to provide a common core of skills? To prepare young people for jobs, keep them off the streets, set them up for further more specialized learning, or make them into good citizens? Do we hope that our classrooms will instill intellectual curiosity, or do we assume that students who come to us lacking this vital quality just must be written off?

To a certain extent, obviously, answers to these questions depend heavily on the age of the students. Surely, we assume elementary school students need to have their curriculum dictated to them more than do college students.

And yet, “we” do not make that assumption, necessarily. A Montessori education is often far more student-driven than an education at a public elementary school that faces funding cuts due to its students failing at standardized tests. A small, selective liberal arts college is more likely to presume that its students will tackle a core of traditional literary and philosophical texts than does a regional state university such as the one at which I teach. In fact, our current General Education curriculum allows students to avoid whole disciplines if they choose to do so: they merely have to take six hours of Humanities, six hours of Social Sciences, and so on. They may choose to skip literature or history or anthropology entirely.

Though I risk sounding like E.D. Hirsch in saying so, I am not sure that such freedom is a good thing. To me, a university education ought to be about gaining some deeper familiarity with a wide range of subjects that will ultimately produce an informed citizenry. Just as I shouldn’t have been allowed to avoid fractions in fourth grade because I found them “boring,” I don’t think students–no matter what their long-term career goals–should be able to graduate college without having read a few hard novels, learned something about botany or animal biology, and engaged with the theoretical difficulties of really trying to understand an unfamiliar cultural perspective.

The million-dollar question is: why are all of these things important? Can’t one survive just fine without ever having detailed knowledge of Inuit tribes or the anatomy of stars?

This is where Hirsch’s calls for “cultural literacy” fall shortest, as far as I’m concerned. He spends a lot of time proffering examples of the shorthand available if you can quote Shakespeare or the “horrifying” statistics of how many U.S. high school students don’t know when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but he doesn’t really explain why that matters. What is the disadvantage, really, of not knowing those things? Can’t you be a perfectly good lab technician or surgeon or house painter or legal assistant or advertizing executive or any other career you can imagine without that knowledge?

Yes. You could.

But, I would argue, you will be better at all those things if you also know some history, have read some “hard” literature, have thought about the problems of colonial empires and the physics of solar systems. Because access to disciplines like literature and anthropology force you to think about the perspectives of people whose lives are not yours. The sciences put you in your place in the universe, demonstrating how much vaster the world is than you are and teaching you something about how its building blocks fit together. While any specific fact from classes in these subjects might never be directly relevant to a particular student’s future, the sum of those facts turns that student into a person whose mind is more flexibly able to imagine creative answers to problems because s/he has been taught, on a fundamental level, how to think through things that are hard.

Aiming at what Hirsch calls cultural literacy seems, to me, to be primarily important because people who have been taught to think, to formulate considered opinions, to make and support claims on the basis of facts they have learned, and to do that in lots of different disciplines, will be better at all the things adulthood throws at us. They will be more purposeful parents, more considered voters, more informed jurors, better at the team-work and compromise required in the workplace, more considerate neighbors.

And to sacrifice all of those things on the grounds that students are/will be “bored” or “confused” or “don’t need” particular information seems to me to be profoundly short-sighted.

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