Two interventions in the latest round of the CCOA debate. Tangential to that line of argument, and so here, not there.

1. Phoebe writes, in the comments: "If the entire system were to change, and everyone just went to the nearest state school, rather than to a school tailored to needs or preferences of students like them, then maybe we could have a conversation about what College consists of, down to the specific texts."

I find it interesting that these arguments are always at elite liberal arts colleges or Ivy League schools, and never (one MOOC revolt aside) at places like Virginia, UNC, or my alma mater, Michigan. Conservatives at Michigan would complain about the University-mandated Race and Ethnicity requirement, but mine was fulfilled learning about the treatment of the Irish by the British in the early 20th century, so it was kind of a hollow complaint. The reason is, largely, that once a university passes a certain size, it becomes logistically impossible--and kind of silly--to assume the purpose of a university education is unitary. Education then requires many departments with many professors, and so by definition a large number of successful paths. The intricacy of major requirements was usually tied to the size of the department, if only because it became difficult to ensure what classes might be available the larger (and thus more irregular) the department gets; the ability to specialize increases with departmental size. (A department with 50 professors each teaching (say) a 2-1 where half of them get to teach a course based on their research is likely to produce some questionable-seeming courses even if the curriculum as a whole is conventional.) If the scenario Phoebe envisions were to come to pass, I would expect this would make a conversation about what college consists of, down to the specific texts, impossible (this, of course, supports Phoebe's overall point).

And, goodness, class size: I took exactly five classes with fewer than 40 students: two sections of Spanish (at about 30), my two senior seminars in philosophy and political science, and one We Need a 400-level Course to Get Our Philosophy Degree. Seminar-style pedagogy is barely possible with the Chicago-mandated Core course size of 19: it is impossible above 40. As a teacher, your aims and outcomes need to be radically different, not least because the students have different expectations. There were 400 people in my Intro to Political Theory, 45-60 for my course on Dante, a similar number for my course on the Russian novel, near 100 for my British history in the 20th century courses, 45-60 in every art history course I took. There's less discussion, more lecturing, more emphasis on getting students to do synthetic work in papers and exams to demonstrate they have done some learning on their own, and professors tend to be thrilled to get students in office hours who just want to talk about their subjects. Come to think of it, the perfect conservative university education may be hiding at big state schools, even right now.

2. Having taught the Core-iest of social science Core courses, and having received my education from Michigan in what was a (voluntarily chosen!) classics-oriented manner, I am willing to venture the opinion that the second is superior to the first. The reason is simple: repetition. Approximately one year of exposure to the classics and then a conventional university education in another subject will not (necessarily) leave a student in a noticeably better place. Students tend to grasp Aristotle, or Aquinas, or Marx, only at the point the course moves on to another figure, and so what remains is rarely coherent and situated in the right context. The eventual result is, depending on the level of reference you prefer, the character in Balzac's Lost Illusions who likes to quote Ciceronian maxims to prove how educated he is, though he long ago forgot the context for any of them, or Father Guido Sarducci's Five-Minute University; the persistence of people who read Aristotle long ago and are positive they remember what he said is astounding. Reading Shakespeare, or Milton, or Aristotle, or Locke only once will rarely make much of an impact: reading it a number of times in different circumstances will. So apart from an attempt to mandate not just introductory course selection, but all course options, it seems like this will fail; and even if all course options were mandated, it'd still require the will of the individual student to make it work.


Phoebe said...

As I think Miss Self-Important said in the thread at her blog, the focus is on the most elite schools (i.e. on Harvard) because of the our-future-leaders concerns. As for why liberal-arts colleges as well, I'd think mostly because that's where things get most hippie-dippie. If you want to write an outraged article about privilege-awareness workshops, that's your best bet.

I'm not sure I follow why, at large public schools not claiming to match individual students' personalities, a standard liberal-arts curriculum wouldn't be desirable from a CCOA standpoint. If it's all postmodern nonsense that Great is relative, surely there could be some committee coming up with the official canon to end all canons. Or if that's too centralized for CCOAs, or to account for differences in class size, a committee at each school could pick one for that institution. This wouldn't cover all the courses offered, but it would cover whichever intro classes.

As for how to really understand Aristotle (and I'm making no such claims myself at this point!), yes, reading something/someone multiple times, in multiple contexts, helps. But then should a student who won't major in Classics have no exposure to them? And isn't part of the value of reading these texts the cultural capital having read them confers? Or, less controversially, isn't it a worthwhile learning experience to see that you, the regular college freshman, can at least partially tackle a work you would have imagined beyond your capacity?

Nicholas said...

But I think it's important, as someone who was once a CCOA and now is no longer, that the critique is difficult if not impossible to apply at the places most people get educated. And this is for approximately the reasons George Will outlined in that column Jacob Levy linked to on twitter: it spills over into a very odd kind of aristocratic concern for what happens to the elite that ignores the vast majority.

It's difficult to impossible for reasons of logistics: it would have been hard to get the 6000 people in my class to do anything at the same time, much less guarantee any quality across sections, without some massive and time-wasting diversions of faculty teaching loads (which at a place like Michigan will be something like a 2-1 with some number of people exempted from teaching undergrads, which is one of the perks). The one thing that was required of everyone, freshman comp, was already sub-divided into regular and science versions, and you were allowed to not take it until the first semester of your second year if you couldn't get a section on your schedule until then.

I'll also suggest that the CCOA emphasis on getting the classics when you're 18 tends to miss the point that a lot of people aren't ready to do much with Aristotle, or Marx, or anyone else at that age, which transforms them from potentially useful or revelatory figures to "that person who I was forced to read that one time"; some will handle that better at 20 or 25; CCOAs seem oddly committed to the proposition that unless you read the classics as a freshly-minted adult, you never will. Some people will benefit from being forced to read them anyway; some people will not. It's not entirely clear to me why being forced to read them is the better educational outcome.

I think the more relevant question, for people who like to compile nonsense a la the neverending complaint about Bowdoin, is not whether there are unusual course titles, but whether it's possible to put together, in the space of four years, a reasonable-sounding collection of Great Books-ish courses. I suspect that's possible everywhere, but "you could just ignore courses you're not interested in and take ones that fit your interests" isn't a critique to put the fire into anyone's heart.