Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Well-Roundedness vs. Specialization

In our conversations about the kind of education we are trying to offer at St. Lawrence, we often look to the University's "Aims and Objectives," found in our Catalog. We note the relationship between the numbered list of items and our general education requirements, and puzzle over the anomalies: the ones that do not map clearly onto our distribution requirements.

And there is talk about rethinking entirely how we structure our program of studies. Do we want to revise the Aims and Objectives? Do minors serve a meaningful purpose? Do we have too many minors? Should we eliminate majors and minors altogether, and have advisors (or "faculty mentors") work closely with each student to help them design meaningful programs of study? These are some of the questions I keep hearing.

What is difficult about talking about the general education requirements is that we faculty tend to be trained in specialized disciplines. We feel more comfortable talking about how to design our majors and minors than we do designing a more broad-based liberal arts framework of study. Within the latter, we each tend to advocate our own discipline or program as "essential" for all students, and feel hesitant about advocating too far beyond our own area of expertise.

I suspect that some of this discomfort comes from our awareness of the holes in our own educational backgrounds.

Not only can our students complete their entire four years of study here, playing fully by the rules, and yet neglecting ____________ (fill in your own favorite "essential" field of study), most of us as faculty -- even those who received their undergraduate degrees from small liberal arts colleges -- have also missed out on several important fields of study.

For example, by fulfilling my science requirement with courses in physics, I did not take biology in college. I studied German, but not Chinese. I took anthropology, but not economics. I played music, but did not take courses in music theory, or art history.

My liberal arts education did allow me to explore areas of study beyond my specialization. It also helped me to appreciate the value of a broad-based, well-rounded education -- to the extent that it inculcated in me a deeply-rooted regret for all that I haven't myself studied!

One day recently, while proctoring a final exam, I took the SLU Catalog and decided to see whether it would be possible for a student to study at least one course in every one of our departments (while still fulfilling major and distribution requirements) and the answer is "probably not." Students take 33.5 units. If you subtract the 3 FYP/FYS units, and the 8 minimum number of courses required for a major (but many majors require 9, 10, or more courses), there are 22.5 courses left. Taking the intro course for every department would probably result in fulfilling the distribution and diversity requirements. So some motivated student might achieve this, but such a curriculum would be a bit frowned-upon because most or all of the coursework outside of the student's major would be at the introductory level.

So we give students choices, but their choices necessarily leave holes in their education. We faculty have holes in our own education, and we can all too easily be biased in favor of what we ourselves have studied.

I am wondering whether there is a way to educate students and faculty in disciplines beyond what they have the time to take courses in. I suspect that all faculty have their own list of what they wish that every educated person knew about their discipline. Is there a way to structure an educational program that would allow students and faculty together to fill in those holes, at least a little?