A Student of History

February 28, 2007

Colleges and 52 Pick Up

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 12:28 pm

At Townhall.com (which I have never visited before today) columnist Henry Edmundson has a piece on what is going on in the academy as far as curriculum, or a lack thereof.  He compares course offerings by most colleges as a game of 52 Pick Up, which surely we all can recall from childhood.

Something like that is going on in education. It has to do with the movement to discard the academic disciplines in favor of teaching students “what they really need to know” or introducing them to “the real world.”

The disciplines, however imperfect they may be, provide—well, discipline. They bring organization and accountability to the curriculum. A college education is not like “52 Card Pick-Up”, whereby you throw up the deck of cards and let them land where they will. The curriculum must be organized in some reasonable fashion. It’s a practical matter.

Academic disciplines have a long pedigree. Some of the disciplines go back for two millennia, when Aristotle taught his class in physics, and then his class “after physics” on philosophical principles—the Metaphysics. The Trivium and the Quadrivium coalesced in the Middle Ages. The Trivium consists of logic, rhetoric and grammar; the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These are still pretty good checklists for a good education. You will occasionally find them in private schools or as the organizing scheme in home schooling curricula. The results are usually SAT scores between 1300 and 1500.

The organization of the disciplines has refined over the centuries. Although the disciplines may be criticized for too narrow a focus for the “real” world, they, in fact, provide these subject building blocks precisely to insure that students are equipped for the real world. Otherwise, it is “hit or miss.”

So, in abandoning the “disciplines” and giving students “what they really need to know” we are discarding a proven method of organization–admittedly arbitrary, imperfect, Western, “logo-centric,” “traditional” etc.–in favor of a new scheme of organization that is arbitrary, unproven, and may vary according to the personalities and prejudices of those involved.

Mr. Edmondson is Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at the Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.  

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