How to reinvent higher education.

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 15 2005 8:21 AM

College Makeover

Learn statistics. Go abroad.

What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate's "College Week."

Click on image to enlarge. Illustration by Nina Frenkel.

Nobody's ever going to put me in charge of designing the general education requirements of a major university, with or without a magic wand. Thank God. I've been on committees at a couple of great universities charged with the task and, putting aside the political difficulties (which I guess you can do, if you have a magic wand) you come to see it's one of those problems you can't solve, only manage. Here's the basic dilemma: If you say that a general education should teach you all the stuff worth knowing, there's far too much to fit around a major in a four-year education. If you say, on the other hand, that it should teach you only the essentials, there's too little. You can live a perfectly decent life with what you have to know just to get out of high school; indeed, many people do.

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In any case, whatever you think is good for them, some students will resist it, and others will find their way to a great education without a requirement in sight. So my general attitude to college education, I'm afraid, is let a hundred flowers bloom. Let people try core programs of different sorts and distribution requirements with categories as exotic as they like. Heck, let them try allowing students to put together a general education out of any courses they like. But since we've been offered a magic wand, there are two things that I'd want to urge most colleges to think about as ways of strengthening the liberal part of liberal education: the part, that is, that's supposed to prepare you for life as a free person.

I start with two problems. One is most evident with humanities majors: Many of them don't know how to evaluate mathematical models or statistical arguments. And I think that makes you incompetent to participate in many discussions of public policy. So I favor making sure that someone teaches a bunch of really exciting courses, aimed at non-majors in the natural and social sciences, which display how mathematical modeling and statistical techniques can be used and abused in science and in discussions of public policy. If there are enough of them and they're good enough, one or two required courses in this area won't seem like a chore to students. And even those who grouse will probably be grateful later. Learn Bayes' Theorem, it won't kill you.

The second problem is one that you can find in almost every major, though it's less common among those doing foreign-language majors or area studies. It is an astonishing parochialism. (This is, for obvious reasons, less common among students from abroad.) Too many of our students haven't the faintest idea what life is like anywhere outside the class and the community—let alone the country—they grew up in. Language requirements—that you should leave college with one more language than you entered with, say—can help here. And so, no doubt, can courses on other places, peoples, and times.

But parochialism isn't a matter of not knowing a bunch of cultural snippets about peoples everywhere. It's an attitude. And the fellow from Des Moines or San Francisco who spends a semester at Tallinn or Johannesburg or Berlin or even Canberra at least acquires the basic Another Country insight: They do things differently there. (The University of Tallinn will be a bit of a stretch for most students, true: They teach mostly in Estonian or Russian and use Finnish, Russian, and English textbooks. Try the Tallinn Institute of Technology, whose Web site claims that it "is the only public university in Estonia which offeres degree programs fully in English language." One thing they do differently there, it appears, is English.) So why not just reinvigorate an old tradition—the Junior Year Abroad—which, at too many campuses, has fallen into desuetude. We could take a leaf from the EU's strikingly successful Erasmus program, which makes it easy for college students to spend a semester or two at an accredited university in another country. If you want to improve the general education you're offering, in short, encourage your students to try somebody else's.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is the author most recently of The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.

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