Higher ed needs higher standards
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:02
As college students, we often hear about the value of a liberal arts education, but what precisely does that mean?
It’s a whole lot more than simply having to take an algebra or composition class.
To the Greeks, the liberal arts were those things which enabled people to competently participate in civil discourse.
The trivium – rhetoric, logic and grammar – was the core of this education. Medieval Europeans later added the quadrivium – music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.
Most universities require general education courses so students will be well-rounded and have knowledge beyond their chosen concentration.
For example, scientists and mathematicians should be able to communicate effectively, while someone like a historian will be aided in their research by possessing a familiarity with biological and physical sciences.
An educated person is someone proficiently knowledgeable in many areas.
Universities have become credential factories that are concerned not with giving students a true liberal-arts education but with providing a piece of paper that is decreasingly valuable the easier it becomes to acquire one.
This is apparent when observing the relaxation of standards for general education courses.
We ostensibly develop critical thinking skills in classes dealing with topics like history and the fine arts, but few are anything more than shallow rehashes of high school material.
A history course may tell you that the Munich Agreement and Germany’s subsequent annexation of Czechoslovakia were key events in the lead-up to World War II, but it’s doubtful that the class will explore the history of the idea of a unified Germany, the relationship between Germans and Slavs and other influences on the Nazi Party.
Music classes will teach you about composers and different periods such as the Baroque and Classical eras, but how many dig a little deeper to explore what that art tells us about the cultures from which it arose? Not many, I’d wager.
And it’s entirely plausible that one can graduate with a bachelor’s degree without having read a lick of Shakespeare, Milton or other giants of Western literature.
Such writings impart upon the reader a better understanding of human nature than any sociology textbook, yet general education curricula require scant exposure to key literary works.
What is more beneficial to developing critical thinking skills, simply reading the “Iliad” and taking a test on the plot or analyzing literary elements like Achilles as a tragic hero?
Developing such skills requires students to not just absorb the views of instructors. Lectures are important, but so are classroom discussions.
Vigorous debates on the merits of various theories and schools of thought are immensely valuable in the education of any young person.
And yet the State of Arkansas requires graduates to have only 35 hours of general education courses.
At ASU, you can graduate having completed only one history course and without finishing a single literature course.
You must complete only one fine arts course, rendering classes in music and visual art optional, as well.
This is unacceptable. One can’t seriously be considered educated if they have no knowledge of the human experience.
At the very least, the university should revert to requiring two fine arts classes and two humanities courses.
It should be mandatory that students complete both U.S. History survey courses and at least one World Civilization course. Other requirements should include economics, philosophy and politics.
Education à la carte is bad for students and bad for society. Registering for classes shouldn’t be akin to a trip to Subway (“Hmm, can I have the psychology and geography? I don’t want any of that other stuff...”)
Universities should be focused on helping students acquire the knowledge and wisdom to better understand the world around them.
It falls on everyone at ASU – students, professors and administrators – to promote an atmosphere conducive to academic success.
Zach Lott is a sophomore history major of Jonesboro.