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QotD: Liberal Arts

Question: Should colleges and universities place as much emphasis on liberal arts as they do?

My Answer: Click the link there for the post that prompted this question. Like the first commenter, I too would have loved to focus more of my time on a topic of my choosing. I was a medicinal chemistry major with minors in CS and French - perhaps one or both of those could have become majors had I not been forced to take classes like Philosophy 101 (with a professor named Beanblossom who gave As to stupid but pretty girls and Bs [at most] to any guy), Religion 101 (where my 32-page paper received the same "A" as my roommate's 10-page paper (14-point Chicago, triple spaced).

I do see value in having core LA classes. What killed me most of the time was the lame attendance policies. Why did all of my LA classes have attendance policies, yet 400-level CS and chemistry classes did not? If I can earn an A in English 110 without going to class more than once a week, why force me to go every day?

You are encouraged to answer the Question of the Day for yourself in the comments or on your blog.

16 Responses to "QotD: Liberal Arts"

  1. I don't think that those courses should be required as much or as often as they are.

    The argument that it would get kids to interact with other groups of students is hopeful at best. People seem to have a tendency to refrain from intermingling with people that aren't in their social group. Also, why use up students' credits for the college's desire to create a better social mix?

    We had electives at my college. You had to rack up a certain amount of credits in each category no matter what your major. The categories were Composition, Humanities, Mathematics, Social Sciences, and Physical (aka Natural) Sciences (three credits of which had to be a Biological science.) UF is pretty huge, and there are a lot of different classes so you didn't have to take something completely uninteresting if you didn't want to.

    One thing I think universities should consider offering/requiring is a class on finance and maybe even practical living. So many people are messing up their financial lives now because the generation before us practically refused to discuss money. Now many of us are ignorant of money and other practical, day-to-day life skills.

  2. To some degree, I think it is necessary just in the same way a teacher may have to teach to the dunce in a room, as well as the brightest. Some people, regardless of earlier education, have not been exposed to cultural milestones every literate person should know.

    This can even be vital for those who went to private prep school before college. Ones earlier education can be too focused towards a narrow goal, that much is missed, it doesn't matter the apparent mark of 'quality' attributed to that education.

    On the other hand, with an emphasis on liberal arts, some schools are merely prep schools for graduate or professional school, rather than the real world. Employers recruit from the largest and most diverse pool, rather than the shiniest puddle, i.e. Large State University has more recruitment than Ivy Puddle College, because they are able to find students who have been able to train more directly to their business model with their available hours, rather than forced into electives which may be redundant in their life experience.

    But you will not see an increase in classes taught on personal finance, because of the profit margins of the insurance and banking industries being dependant on keeping everyone in the dark about such.

  3. Your complaints about Philosophy and Religion 101 are about the professors, not the subjects or the requirements. As for attendance, usually there's more emphasis on class participation and what you hear in class cannot be picked up elsewhere so even if it's just a lecture, it's important to be there. It's much more feasible in the sciences for an adept student to just go through the book on their own and do well on the tests. Which is another thing, grades in the sciences are much more objective with easy to quantify measures.

    I don't care for specific classes outside the major being required but I also think there should be significant requirements in each general field, as David described. Everyone should try something to broaden their horizons and I think it's important enough to require it. It doesn't work for everyone but that really can't be determined, even by the individual, in advance. Being able to write well is also of great importance and that's hard to learn those skills within the Math and "hard" sciences departments. I was a Philosophy major at a small liberal arts college but my minor was "interdisciplinary science" and everyone else in the minor program was a "hard" science major. My minor tried to go beyond the lab work and math; we wrote research papers and did presentations more like what you'd find in the social sciences but on topics that were closer to physicists, chemists, etc. (the only one I can remember is being in different groups each defending an energy source; nuclear, solar, coal, etc.)

    Coincidentally, I'm also almost done with an MS in Information Technology at RIT. I don't really approve it as an undergrad degree, it's like a half-assed mix of college and trade school (I'm speaking strictly about IT, not CS). I'm not too keen on the geek-boy element spending even more time diddling with computers and knowing little else. I think it will dilute the value of my degree. An undergrad program can serve different purposes, sometimes it's prep for more advanced degrees but what it should not be is a trade school, that's too short-sighted. Colleges should produce learners, learners with some focus, but still people who are trainable and will be prepared for different careers and education in the future. I don't think colleges can do that if the students hardly ever stray outside their major.

    I think "practical living" and personal finance should be taught in high school. Don't schools have HomeEc anymore? When I was in high school, HomeEc was cooking and sewing but it should have some real economics in it. However, it would be good for Economics departments (or Business School at larger universities) to have classes for non-majors that fairly practical & "real world."

  4. My complaint is with the subject: religion and philosophy were useless classes. Repetitious and childish at best. And the professors knew it.

    I did more work for my high school English class than I did in English 110. Yet I had to be there, listening to people ask things like "which one is Hamlet again?"

    I tested out of as many things as I could, believe me. The complaint isn't about the teachers - most of them hated teaching required courses too and let me have some leeway.

  5. My complaint is with the subject: religion and philosophy were useless classes. Repetitious and childish at best. And the professors knew it.

    Not to be rude, but philosophy is hardly a useless subject. And really, any and every discipline of the Fine and Language arts is a useful thing to study, even minorly. It's what we like to call a "well rounded person."

    If your professors found it repetitoius and childish at best, then they weren't very good professors. I've done my share of "elective" Liberal arts, and most of them were fairly interesting, very much because the professors made it so.

    And as extra88 points out, the nature of liberal arts is more discussion oriented than fact oriented. Sciences are very oriented around facts, and things that can be looked up in reference. If you miss a class of your 400 level CS course you can always find a plethora of the same information elsewhere. It's not exactly new or groundbreaking information.

    Liberal arts courses, and especially philosophy, tend to be based around the discussion of ideas (At least, the well run classes are). So participation in that discussion is as much a part of the grade as the papers, or the readings.

    That said, I think "attendance policices" are bunk. Colleges really should treat their students as adults. I know most of the professors here (RIT) don't have an 'attendance policy', though many often cite "class participation" as a significant portion of the grade. Which is a clever euphamism for the same thing, but without the implication that you MUST be at EVERY class.

    Altough, I do think it's useful for schools to allow more opportunities to "test out" of some of the basic liberal arts requirements. As much as I like having them required, that's no reason to hold back someone who already has that background.

  6. And this is what I get for replying before I read the article you linked. I deserve a kick in the arse. I go to RIT, and have always thought that the general guidelines for programs were pretty well written. And I think this change is a very bad idea. But that's just me.

  7. I really don't think Erik was trying to say all religion and philosophy classes are useless, that would be incredibly foolish. Sometimes a professor will teach a class developed by someone else but it is the professor who is primarily responsible for the quality of the course.

    Of course even a great professor can get sucked down by a classroom full of boneheads. It always sucks to be in a class with people who aren't as smart and/or motivated as you are. And it's usually more noticeable in Humanities classes because of the increased participation. You can somewhat avoid them when selecting a school and then when selecting courses (take hard classes) but no matter what school you attend, there will still be some students like that in at least some of your classes.

    I don't know what "English 110" is supposed to be. If its a composition class to try to make sure freshmen can string a sentence together, you should be able demonstrate your ability and skip it. If it's an English lit survey course which fulfills a requirement, it should be just one of a number of courses available.

  8. Not to be rude, but philosophy is hardly a useless subject. And really, any and every discipline of the Fine and Language arts is a useful thing to study, even minorly. It's what we like to call a "well rounded person."

    It's a useless subject. I'm quite well rounded. I'm quite well read. When the subject covers no new ground whatsoever for me, it's useless. By definition, practically.

    As extra88 says, I'm not saying all discussion of Religion and Philosophy are useless. But those "gen-ed" classes were - my time would have been better spent elsewhere, even independently studying philosophy or religion.

    English 110 was "great works" at my school. Hence the "Hamlet" comments. This professor had an attendance policy but saw that I knew what I was doing and let me out of it. I'm eternally grateful for that.

    I tested out of the previous level English (100) but had to take 101 because nobody tests out of that.

    And professors aren't necessarily "bad" because they dislike teaching a bunch of people who'd rather not be there. I don't like talking about mundane, boring topics: I like the details, the upper-level stuff. It's more exciting, and the students who reach 300 and 400-level classes are interested enough to engage in intelligent discussion.

    That's just not true at the 100 "gen-ed" level.

  9. My guess is that you're misdirecting your anger, like others have mentioned, but perhaps in a different area.

    The 'hoops', as many call them... At least in my opinion, are not about 'rounding you out' or any crap like that.

    It's to see what you're interested in.

    For instance, I went to school to get a CS degree and education. After 2 years of dredging through things that I already knew, I got tired of it.

    Today, while I still study CS-related topics with fervor, I also spend a lot of time reading the works of past philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists. I find those latter topics interesting and were never exposed to them in prior education.

    On PHL in particular, I think it's good to realize where some of the rationale came from for certain major history-making events - for example, the Constitution has a lot of influence from English philosophers at the time such as John Stuart Mill. Calculus was derived from Descartes, who was not a mathematician by trade - yes, a philosopher, and Newton and Leipzig formed what we traditionally call "Calculus" from an example in one of his writings. For many, the thought of going without either of these things today is a hard to fathom concept, and they were brought by philosophers and "stuff everyone already knew", as you put it.

    PHL Professors, however, are not the most pragmatic of people in my experience, and I think that your own investigation of these topics (you can find a lot of information on wikipedia, and project gutenberg if you are interested in learning for yourself) will prove much more fruitful than what ultimately amounts to a guy telling you what he thought about what some other dead guy thought - which is my #1 problem with Liberal Arts majors and the professors that teach them - most of the people in the former group are too busy learning what their professors taught them, find out that they have no basis in reality and come to be professors themselves, or use it as some elitist agenda.. "So and so was /really/ talking about this" good god, I hate that.

    Writing will make you better at writing, and studying works by those who are good writers (by your /own/ criteria) will make you better at recognizing your own flaws. Likewise, I have found that a good education in the social sciences described above give me a better framework to establish motive for my own judgements - and I will not get that from anyone else by myself, ever.

    I'm sure you've seen algorithms or constructs and thought "wow, that's good stuff", and used something similar in future escapades. It's not any different.

  10. Another way to look at it, something I tell others all the time:

    Philosophy is about what you should do, Psychology is about what you want to do, and Sociology is about what you will most likely do. 🙂

  11. I remember having this exact same issue with school during my freshman year. I was a biology major and I could not, for the life of me, understand why in the world I was required to take courses in ethnic studies or history or philosophy. I thought it was a complete waste of my time, given what I wanted to do with my life and the work I had already done in high school.

    Today I look back and think: how does was I?! I'll admit that to this day I've never actually needed to use anything I learned in my Middle Eastern Literature course, but you know, I still recall parts of some of the books I read and I can appreciate having that knowledge. There have been countless times that I've been somewhere talking with someone and I was able to throw in something I learned in my useless Behavior Psychology class. Yes, it was useless because I don't *need* that information, but it still adds value to my life.

    I think, and I say this sincerely, that if you really weren't able to take *anything* away from those liberal arts courses, then there is probably something wrong with you. You weren't able to take a single thing away from that religion class? Really?

  12. My guess is that you're misdirecting your anger, like others have mentioned, but perhaps in a different area.

    The only anger I have is towards dumb comments like yours. I'm not angry that I had to take gen-eds. I think they were a waste of time.

    It's to see what you're interested in.

    I'm quite good at finding that out for myself, thank you very much. And for all intents and purposes, I was doing it. I made upwards of $120,000 throughout my college career. Work, school - I was doing what I was interested in. "Great Works" - rehashing what I did in high school - was not it.

    The remainder of your comment seems, well, not much there. "Good for you" and a slap on the back. At least you - kinda - tried to answer the question.

    And to Nima, of course I took stuff away from the classes. Of course I did. But those (quick calculation: 4/week, 10 weeks, 50 mins/class = ) 33+ hours could have been better spent. Instead of taking "something" away I could have taken seven somethings. Or eight, or nine. And that's not counting time spent outside of class.

    Besides, as I've said, much of the classes were reviews of what I'd learned in high school. And most of the people in my high school classes were smarter than most of the nitwits that were merely taking the class because they were forced.

    I took the all-advanced track in high school. I know where to push myself. If I wanted an easy A in HS I could have had it. But I did the work - let me move on. Don't make me waste my time in "Great Works" covering the same material - with less intelligence.

    That's not anger, Hollensbe. That's a practical look at my life.

  13. And to Nima, of course I took stuff away from the classes. Of course I did. But those (quick calculation: 4/week, 10 weeks, 50 mins/class = ) 33+ hours could have been better spent. Instead of taking "something" away I could have taken seven somethings.

    I understand what you're saying, but to follow along that train of thought would you then advocate a completely elective course selection system? For example, I gained no clear value from my one year of Calculus. I've never had to do a derivation or work with vectors since then. I could have used that time to study virology. Do you think that system is a better one?

    Or taken one step further: my second quarter of general biology involved a great deal of plant biology, which I have never needed since. Should I have been able to elect out of that portion of the course, and instead attend part of a writing class that dealt with Dostyevski's text (which I happen to be found of)?

    I'm not posing these questions to be argumentative but rather because there's a pretty deep intellectual issue at hand. How much choice should I have in what I have to learn? I very much enjoyed literature, but I'm not a big fan of Joseph Conrad's. Should I be able to just get up and walk out of the room when the teacher starts talking about him, and not have to take any tests on that material? Or, even though I could be somewhere else learning something else, is there a value to me learning that particular thing?

    Or, finally, to put it another way: should all universities be vocational schools?

  14. I had no intention to insult you at all, just give you perspective - if you would have read between the lines, I had the same problems with my CS classes as you did with your Liberal Arts classes - and I'm not going to get around that if I want to get a Bachelor's degree in it, am I?

    While I deleted an equally pompous rebuttal (hint: "mine is bigger than yours") to your money-making/hard-working argument, I will give you a lame quotable by a very smart man instead - who, like I, found early topics boring and went straight for the interesting stuff - like him, my topic was math - go figure.

    "The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."

  15. would you then advocate a completely elective course selection system?

    Yep. I paid for my college education - why should I be forced to take classes I know to be a repeat of stuff I've already learned? I'm not saying I don't want advisors - I think they help shape the classes their advisees take more than gen-eds - but I'm paying for it - let me take a class I'll truly find interesting instead of rehashing the same old stuff.

    Taken one step further is taken one step too far, in my opinion. Though I modified my major and helped my university create a new one - medicinal chemistry didn't exist before I asked it to be made.

    How much choice should I have in what I have to learn?

    An incredible amount. Far more than most universities. The real world is about owning up to the choices you make, and reaping the benefits or suffering the consequences. Give kids a recommended list of general studies, say "employers like people to take these courses," and then let kids create their own schedules with advisement. For majors and minors, keep the qualifications the same but consider suggesting alternative majors or courses if the mood suits you - the worst an administrator can say is no.

    I specifically didn't go to Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science) because they offered very little in the way of "liberal arts" studies. I made that choice for myself. It was close to a vocational school for pharmacists, and lots of folks go there.

    But Nima, you're taking it entirely too far. Of course all schools shouldn't be vocational. I opted to take a minor in French of my own volition, and I was glad to have the choice available.

    I seem to have far more faith in college students to make good choices for themselves than many other people here. I could have made better class selections for myself. I'd have skipped Philosophy 100 and jumped into 210 or 215 or something. I could have skipped "Great Works" and taken an acting class or a piano class.

    I could have gotten more for my $125,000 schooling expense. Much more.

  16. People could always CLEP out of some of the courses there for the purposes of "padding" the curriculum, but that doesn't seem to be sold very strongly as a possibility.

    I don't know if ideas like being able to audit a course, or take it "Pass/Fail" helps the situation, or makes it far worse. There are some courses I would have hoped to have been very challenging, for my personal interest level, but were taught mostly for easy A's. passing jocks, and entertainment purposes; which filled the classes with disinterested morons, and made things a waste of time.

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