The All College Requirements at Colorado College have failed in creating liberal arts students. I am speaking specifically about the education requirements: the “west in time,” the language requirement, a global culture course, a social inequality course, a scientific investigation or natural world class, and a quantitative reasoning course.
Based on the Colorado College website, the purpose of these requirements is to increase the possible perspectives through which students can approach problems. More realistically, these classes are treated as a hindrance, something one must do in order to graduate, but that is outside of what one would choose to study. As long as this is the perception of these requirements, they will fail in their fundamental goal.
There are two solutions to this problem: either we increase the required course load to actually achieve the school’s proposed goal, or eliminate the requirements and allow students to be free to choose their own paths from the beginning. It is difficult to imagine new students being ready to choose exactly what they should study. Part of the role of educators is to lead students to new opportunities that they would not immediately consider, and this idea is what the course requirements should attempt to achieve.
The course requirements are also reflective of a broader challenge for educators. On an abstract level, we must determine what is essential to a liberal arts education. Basically, this is an argument about whether or not there is an agreed-upon canon of knowledge from which all students should be able to draw. Second, we face a practical challenge in determining what level of knowledge is sufficient to satisfy the educator’s responsibility to the student. The first question is more important, but cannot be discussed completely until we attempt to explain the second.
There are two broad categories of knowledge. The first is factual. This type of knowledge means, for example, understanding the events of the Revolutionary War, or the workings of Newtonian physics. However, we must not dismiss practical knowledge as being inherently easy to learn.
A subject can be both factual and complex. If the purpose of our course requirements is to teach factual knowledge, they do not make the student dive deep enough into any issue to have a real, working understanding of what they are studying. An introductory language course will teach you the basics of a language, but it will not prepare one for globalization. The same problem exists across most subject areas. Course requirements do not do enough to establish practical knowledge. Most issues are simply too complicated to be explained in three-and-a-half weeks. As currently constructed, our diversified knowledge-base is not establishing a high-enough level of factual knowledge and is in fact undermining the potential productivity of educating.
But, the course requirements should not be about pursuing this type of knowledge; that is what a major is for. Instead, course requirements should attempt to achieve the second type of knowledge, which I would call methodological. Essentially, this type of knowledge understands how different groups of thinkers approach problems. Clearly, this is a more abstract type of learning that differs from factual knowledge.
Reed College, as part of their first-year teaching course, attempts to expose students to different modes of thinking through reading classic literature. Math professors, sociologists, and professors from essentially all departments, lecture on, for instance, The Iliad. The idea is that through listening to these different perspectives and discussing them in seminars, one can understand the different methodologies that exist for solving problems.
The problem with the currently constructed course requirements is that they misunderstand the relationship between practical and methodological knowledge. Generally, students are exposed to practical knowledge with a brief hint of the underlying methodological approach.
If we think about educating from the perspective that introductory courses are for students to establish a base level of knowledge for their major, which will be supplemented through more courses, then this approach to teaching makes sense. But, this practical knowledge does not work for directly increasing methodological perspectives.
For example, Sir Francis Bacon or Adam Smith could be used to understand concepts like the scientific method or deductive economic logic, but neither should be used to teach students about the facts of modern biology or macroeconomics, respectively.
The solution to the methodological versus practical knowledge question can be found through answering the larger question, “is there a canon for the liberal arts?” The purpose of our type of education is to create critical thinkers with a multifaceted skill set who are capable of approaching modern problems, and who also possess moral character. We should be conciliatory thinkers who can jump from one methodological approach to another, while also being capable of looking inward and understanding ourselves.
Clearly, this definition of a liberal arts education is a demanding expectation. One possibility is to expand the first-year experience into the single main requirement. Imagine if we eliminated our failed factual knowledge requirements and instead spent a full year focused on methodological thinking. One approach to understanding methodology would be to read the writings of the great thinkers, from Socrates, to Tolstoy, to Smith and Darwin on forward into modernity.
Currently, we are requiring students to make choices on nine blocks of their education within a specific set of guidelines. The results have been mixed at best. For example, students are now taking Latin because it doubles as a “west in time” and a language requirement. This solution accomplishes neither of the goals of those two requirements.
Restructuring how we teach our freshman would mean exposing them to the groundbreaking thinkers, not the convenient courses. There are obvious difficulties to this proposal, like deciding which thinkers merit consideration, and finding professors who are willing to teach something completely different. However, these problems are practical not theoretical, and can be solved through hard work and rational thought.
Quality education our institutional goal, and part of achieving high-quality education means questioning the existing system. The general education requirements are an imperfect solution that waste time, bring down the quality of education, and undermine the general goals of our college. I envision our collegiate future not as a place where facts are committed to memory, but where the people are committed to the study of ideas.