On Monday, the Washington Post carried a provocative story about the perennial debate in the college and university community about the nature of an undergraduate curriculum.
In a nutshell, the debate is between the relative merits of a curriculum designed to provide high level skills in an increasingly professional job market as opposed a more general understanding of history and culture. As the headline put it, “Balancing Academic Tradition and Skills Employers Demand.”
I approach this debate from several perspectives: as a college student in the 1950’s, ‘60’s and now; as a college instructor in the 1960’s and now; and as a former member of George Mason University’s Board of Visitors.
My basic belief is that a college education should be principally designed to greatly expand students’ circles of knowledge; to introduce students to intellectual concepts, culture, literature, music, economic theories, theoretical mathematics and languages; and to give them the ability to articulate the knowledge they have gained. In the vernacular, it is called readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic.
Don’t get me wrong. Developing specific skills is important: engineering, pre-medical training, business skills – to name just a few. But college is there primarily to expand your vision, not restrict it. More specific skills should be developed as part of a post-graduate education.
After reading the story, Jean and I reflected on our college experiences in the late 1950’s, she at William and Mary and I at LSU.
Jean was the first in her family to finish high school. For her, college was a path to world she barely knew existed. At William and Mary, she took a required core curriculum of English, History, Philosophy, Science, and Arts.
She told me of the time she first heard the words of Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky.” “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.” She delighted in the Arts Survey Course that included architecture, visual arts, and theatre from ancient times to the 1950s. General, yes; but broadening, definitely.
Jean had discovered a new world, a world in which she lives and thrives to this day.
My experience was not as dramatic, but it was equally thrilling. I remember being absolutely stunned hearing for the first time Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” in my required music appreciation class, propelling me into the marvels of Twentieth Century classical music. I read some great classics in the original Greek language, absorbed absolutely great lectures on American history by one of the great historians of the day, and studied symbolic logic with a dour, but powerful Philosophy professor. I learned how to think.
This, to me, is what college should be all about – broadening horizons and discovering new worlds.
A Community Note: It’s time to nominate individuals and groups for Arlington’s annual Community Hero Awards to be given on Arlington Neighborhood Day, Saturday May 10. You are encouraged to nominate any individual or group for their “extraordinary contribution to the community.” You can access the forms on the Arlington Neighborhood website, which can be reached by going to the county website at www.co.arlington.va.us. If you have any trouble finding a form, just email me and I will send one.