What, More Gruel?!?

A question came up in conversation yesterday whether or not universities and colleges “should” provide a broad based liberal education and mandate certain courses. The libertarian (lower case “L”) part of my conscience hollered “No!” It implies students are incapable of determining their own futures and deciding for themselves what is of interest. Establishing class quotas and enforcing mandatory attendance (that’s how I unpack the word “should” in this context) in a class of subjects determined by a university as “broad based” and “liberal” is to treat college students like grade schoolers and, in my view, antithetical to the mission of higher education.

We like to think of a university as a place where the students have freely chosen to participate in the process of enriching themselves as they see fit. If an institution of higher learning were to force such topics on its students, it will more than likely fail at preparing its students for success in the “real” world. This failure is already in full bloom for a wide variety of other reasons. Exacerbating it with mandated formula classes designed to generate revenue, keep professors employed, or cater to an unprepared pool of college students is unwise. After all, how far can a student expect to get in life with a degree in “Racial Heteronormativity,” even with the minor in “Neo-Nihilism”? The plethora of exceedingly silly four year college degrees put forward by long established institutions of higher education are a clear indication of those institution’s utter inability to determine degree-to-viable-career relevancy for students.

Speaking as a consumer of online programs, it is my belief they should focus on providing the highest quality educational experience in the subject areas demanded by their customers (the students.) There will always be interest in the types of subjects offered in the domain of broad based liberal arts, even if at present it seems to be a diminishing interest. But the world is changing such that the surviving institutions brokering degrees in higher education will have achieved their longevity by providing products in accordance with the prevailing demands. And it may be, at some future point, the broad based liberal arts will be in greatest demand.

Speaking as a person who did get a degree in chemistry with a goal of being a chemist (and was for a short time) but didn’t end up being a college professor, had I been forced to take classes as an undergraduate in special education or juvenile delinquency, they would have remained, after all these years, categorized as wasted time and money. But lets say for the purposes of this discussion they would have been relevant later in life. The information I learned 20 years prior in two such dynamic fields would have been so dated as to be largely irrelevant.

A valuable lesson learned early by competent software engineers and developers  is to refrain from building functionality into software that has not been demonstrated as needed by the customer, even though it might be “cool” to have or a reasonable person might speculate such capabilities might be needed. Odds are stacked such that, no matter how “cool”, the feature will not be needed or even desired. (Anybody here remember “Clippy” the friendly little helper in Microsoft Word? I rest my case.)

The same principle should be applied to education at the college level. It is presumptuous in the extreme for a college to assume what students might need later in life. Who among us has not diverged considerably from the plans we had early in life? It’s not just career changes that effect what’s relevant. It’s everything else – marriage, children, travel, personal triumphs and tragedies – that alters what we consider important and interesting. When I was an undergraduate, the very idea of making a living from writing software was almost laughable. But years later, the PC had become a commodity and I made a very good living writing and designing software solutions.

With respect to knowledge and expertise, the vast majority of what I needed and used to succeed was acquired outside of public education and college. They were busy telling me what to think when what I need to succeed were skills for how to think. Every successful person I can think of learned this outside the confines of structured educational programs.