The Spectacle Blog

Bolstering the Bachelor’s Degree

By on 1.31.14 | 10:55AM

I agree with Professor J.W. Powell that the modern bachelor’s degree has been diluted—but for different reasons. For Powell, students concentrating solely on their major graduate with a parochial understanding of the world. While General Education attempts to counteract the narrowness of studying a single discipline, too many elective choices leave students with only a cursory knowledge of a variety of subjects. He proposes a revamp of the current General Education system:

Start with a two-year upper-division series on intellectual history of the world, stressing the best ideas humans have had and the attacks against them. We could thus anchor the General Education program and provide context to the rest of the degree.  Then add a requirement of three minors—one in science, one in social science, one in humanities—each minor a full half a year of work, in fields with no departmental overlap with the major.

Uniting students on the same rigorous academic course would free them from “provincialism.” But one thing stands in the way: school officials pressured, by limited resources, to rush more students through the university mill.

Here lies the real problem. We are caught between two conflicting desires: wanting to outline an excellent education program and wanting to deliver a perfectly packaged curriculum to as many students as possible. For some, this is not even a conflict, but the conservative sees it as one.

As Powell suggests, let’s take a step back to consider the aim of the bachelor’s degree. I can see three goals: to train a student for a specific practical profession, to provide a student a theoretical understanding of a subject, or some combination of the two. I am skeptical that the third path is necessary for all students.

A universal, multidisciplinary approach assumes that undergraduate students all possess the same strengths and interests, and would equally benefit from exposure to liberal arts and the sciences. Such a belief turns education into a factory, under the theory that, by fostering a student with just the right dose of Hegel and Rousseau, an outstanding citizen will emerge. I am not as optimistic.

Not all students excel at the same subjects, nor should we expect otherwise. Important trades like medicine and engineering do not require literary criticism or metaphysical debate, so alternative tracks to theoretical studies should be available. While Powell is right that business students, for example, should not only be familiar with business, I am not convinced supplemental learning even needs to take place in college—why not high school? It is not even a lack of theory that I am concerned makes these would-be trade students parochial, but a lack of cultural literacy.

I am not discounting the sciences and humanities either. The Great Books programs that Powell mentions such as St. John’s College’s are definitely valuable. The problem is developing a one-size-fits-all plan for education when human nature tells us that students have differing needs, goals, and skills. Not paying attention to these particularities, but still upholding the idealistic goal of a university education for all, the bachelor’s degree will be further watered down. Or, increase the academic rigor without considering the particular needs and aims of students, and some will excel at what they are good at, and the rest will, well, get left behind.

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