What Should College Teach?

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

Too many choices [kodama / Flickr]

Last week, Harvard University published a new plan to revamp its “core” general education requirements. Harvard’s long been looked to as a kind of leader in defining what colleges should be teaching — and so it made us wonder: What should students be learning today, in 2006? What do they need to know these days in order to function as happy, engaged adults?

As the Harvard report puts it, today’s college students live in a world that is

dramatically different from the world in which most [current] faculty grew up. The world today is interconnected in ways almost inconceivable thirty or forty years ago.

Harvard’s Task Force on General Education Preliminary Report

Does this mean that we need to teach the iPod-internet-videogames generation in new ways that incorporate innovative technologies? Or does it reinforce the value of old-fashioned face-to-face seminars? How do you teach students to think and work and live in a world that’s increasingly complex and fast-paced? Does it mean they should be learning more history and world affairs? Or does it reinforce the value of certain traditional academic canons? Or does it point to classes in postmodernism and multiculturalism?

There’s so much more to know now — especially in science and technology — than there was 50 years ago that it’s increasingly hard to envision a well-rounded college graduate. Does the secret lie in distribution requirements? Or in teaching analytical and critical thinking that can be applied to any discipline? Or, as Harvard is proposing, in teaching general education classes in ways that explicitly give them real-world context?

And then there’s the age-old but very real question of how to teach students who arrive at college with dramatically different high-school preparations…

If you’re a college student, or if you’re the parent of a college student, or if you think back on your college days and regret everything you didn’t learn, let us know what and how you’d teach the rising generation.

Susan Gallagher

Professor of political science, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Martha Nussbaum

Professor of law and ethics, University of Chicago Law School

David Shaffer

Professor of learning science, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Madison-Wisconsin

Game scientist, Academic Advanced Distributed Learning CoLaboratory

Author, How Computer Games Help Children Learn (forthcoming, December 2006)

Amardeep Singh

Professor of English, Lehigh University

Blogger, Amardeep Singh

Razib Khan

Blogger, Gene Expression and Science Blogs — Gene Expression

Longtime Open Source commenter

Related Content

  • Samnang

    I’d encourage kids to find something practical that will help them make a living. I learned that a BA in German and History doesn’t go that far in the real world. Esoteric subjects may be interesting, but they need to be combined with skills in areas such as technology, medicine or buisness.

  • I suggest learning Chinese while at the same time reinforcing our understanding of Western Civilization.

  • James Wilkinson, Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University gave a lecture titled “Undergraduate Education: What Good Is It? An International Perspective”.

    He looks at the “what” and the “how” of university education and argues that an emphais on content too often trumps a concern for the process of inquiry.


    I think he would be an excellent guest for the show.

  • aido c

    You should also consider the angle : Who do you now hire to teach

    Obviously there has to be measurable’s on there, 2.1 better than 2.2, PhD better than MSc etc. etc.

    That said, I think that there should now be a push now to hire people with life experience. 10 years experience and at least a little international flavour goes a long way. You can always do a MSc’s & PhD’s after you are hired, but this is stuff you have plenty of time for anyway, and at least your interests will have matured and gained valuable industry insight. Life experience is something they cannot give you so you should have it walking in the door.

    You should also be a natural speaker, motivators, a person who can grab and hold the attention of a room full of these new students.

    There are a couple of things causing this change:

    1) Student attendance – its crap right now, and they are not just blaming the students, they are saying – what is the lecturer doing, remember this is not second or primary school, you cannot just call the police if they don’t show up.

    2) The internet – Information is more easily available weakening your hand if all you put forward is your research ability, information is everywhere now.

    3) Look at your students, more independent, more demanding. Even turn on children’s TV in the morning, you will see 4 or 5 channels competing for their attention, juggling, singing, drawing and playing. Flashing graphics of animals and places from all corners of the globe. The kids sit there largely only mildly impressed. Try to picture this child in 15 years – how are you going to keep his attention?

    3) Motivation – When I entered college, it was succeed or back to the farm, succeed or be unemployed, succeed or emigrate. Their motivation now a days is much more subtle, you have to convince them why they should become an accountant or technician, when they could walk out that door and in 3 months be earning a grand a week block laying or in a few years 45k a year being a police officer. Those jobs did not exist when I went into college.

    4) Industry symbiosis – I cannot overstate this. They want to see lecturers working together with industry. You might be able to fool a room full of first year accountancy students into thinking you know your stuff. But in seconds a Managing director of a accountancy firm will figure you out. He will not want to see any of your graduates.

    5) Money is key now, in the old days you might have earned 14k out of college; a company could afford to almost retrain the student. Now college graduates get a lot more, they need to be productive within 6 months of graduating. You need to work with industry to make this happen.

    6) Class sizes are bigger now too to pay your wages.

    Look, it’s a great job, but if you want to do it, don’t fret about whether you have a 2.1 or a 2.2 or 1.1 or 1.2, and don’t tumble into a PhD just for the sake of it. Certainly I would not suggest trying to go from a PhD straight into lecturing. Forget about lecturing for the sake of lecturing, use your single years to get out in industry and make a name for yourself. Try getting some international experience, if you have time do a taught MSc while you are at it. Then when you get married and settle down and quality of life becomes important again. Time with the kids etc., and then apply for the lecturing post. That life experience is gold dust when you are trying to grab the attention of a room full of kids. You just see all the little ears pop up. They are not stupid, they will see it in your eyes and they will believe you when you tell them “When I was a single man, I was working in London earning 60k a year as an accountant” they will then want that, tell me what in a PhD can compare to that level of motivation.

  • pryoung

    I would second sidewalker’s “concern for the process of inquiry” as far preferable to the purported “practicality” of Samnang’s post. It serves students poorly, in my experience, to have them fashion their educations too narrowly in line with the supposed dictates of the labor market.

    There is of course the matter of humanist values—under seige in our time, arguably—and the need to cultivate those as a counter to the fanaticism and political despair on the rise both here and in the world. My belief is that the university should above all push students to inquire into what it means to be human, and to continue caring about that even as they go out into a world dominated by dehumanizing corporate rationality.

    But even on practical lines, what skills do graduates need to have to enter the global economy? Critical thinking, an ability to synthesize and critically assess huge volumes of information, openness and flexibility in dealing with unfamiliar cultural contexts, facility in multiple forms of communication. The idea that some set of “skills” will equip them for the work world may have been true when one could expect to stay in a single line of work for most or all of one’s career. Things change so quickly now that students need above all to be critical, open and adaptable, and that is what the liberal arts are all about.

  • The next generation of graduates will be called on to invent new energy sources, stop nuclear proliferation, live alongside Islamic states, reverse global warming, support an aging population, combat pandemics, balance the budget, pay off record-breaking debts, fund health care, preserve jobs in the face of growing international competition, etc.

    The most important thing to teach is how to keep an open mind and ignore the constant all to choose sides in lieu of doing analysis. We need clear-minded and creative thought, not anyone’s party line. I’d like to see students and faculty take some sort of “honor pledge” committing them to scientific principles and ethical behavior.

  • peggy sue

    There are still vocational schools and comunity collages for a more job oriented education. I’m sure I’m not the only person with an MFA to have earned a living washing dishes (I’ve managed to rise above that now and work retail part time in a bookstore). Thee problem with a liberal arts education and making a living is that in a capitalist corporate culture once you are out of school there is little or no support for intellectual or artistic pursuits. I see that as a fault of the culture at large rather than a problem a liberal arts education.

  • Not exactly keeping with the theme here, but a bigger concern of mine and perhaps worthy of a followup show, is how should colleges evaluate peformance and how are standards maintained. I referring here to ivy leagues, where so often it is money that determines who will attend such a school. Over the years there have been increasing reports emerging about how students at top schools are given high grades primarily to maintain that their students are of the highest caliber.

    One thing for sure, with a president who is a Yale graduate determining so much related to the life, death, health, and future path of much of the world, the fact that one has a college education from a famous school says nothing of his/her intellegence or abilities. To put it bluntly, we’ve lots of college graduates today, but they can be very dangerously ignorant graduates.

    II’ve more faith in the wisdom of a janitor with a grade school education, than a senator with the highest marks and multiple degrees.

  • peggy sue

    I went to collage twice – once right out of high school – then again in my 40s. As I told the councelor when I was applying to return to school and discovered my grade point was deficant (back in the 70s I was in Morrocco when those incompletes turned to Fs)- my primary goals at that time in my life (18-21) were social and I’m still great friends with my old school pals so in that sense I was successful. I got MUCH more out of collage academically in my 40s. I recommend waiting until you are 40 to go to collage. I went from being a hippie living without electricity to being (a hippie still but) in an art department where I learned to make a web page. I had to retake all my science classes and as challanging as that was I loved it. I got a minor degree in anthropology just because I liked taking the classes. I may die before my student loan gets paid off but being an older student was great.

  • zeke

    At the Haverford College commencement of 1888, President Isaac Sharpless offered advice that I think is still valid–and maybe more necessary–today:

    “I suggest that you preach truth and do righteousness as you have been taught, whereinsoever that teaching may commend itself to your consciences and your judgments. For your consciences and your judgments we have not sought to bind; and see you to it that no other institution, no political party, no social circle, no religious organization, no pet ambitions put such chains on you as would tempt you to sacrifice one iota of the moral freedom of your consciences or the intellectual freedom of your judgments.”

    At the end of the day, critical thinking, independent beliefs, coherent communication, and a moral sensibility are the outcomes that any curriculum should promote.

  • rahbuhbuh

    In 2003 I graduated from a Boston art school, to which I enrolled intent on learning a trade, though was taught to be solely concerned with critical and abstract thought. The method was inward and fussy about big ideals and channeling creativity. The result of many intimate classes (no cavernous impersonal lecture halls here) filled with lengthy critique and discussion, not tests, was a pack of students with pretty looking insight into something they could not explain. People scratched their heads listening. Ideas crashed down because few of us could speak lucidly beyond whatever specialist jargon we learned. Maybe it’s just vague artistic temperament or lack of decent english courses in our curriculum. However, I often witness the same befuddlement in neighboring Boston students (some ivy league) listening to each other attempt to describe their studies.

    Teaching people to be verbal, not just to research then write a compelling essay, and drilling them to seamlessly think and speak on their feet in as many languages as possible would be a great improvement. The most effective people learn how to address an audience, whether of one or a stadium-ful. Critical thinking is fabulous, so long as you can explain it to people who are not one’s colleagues. It makes me wonder how all the secluded MIT researchers are getting along after being called to cross-departmentally mingle more often.

  • webgremlin

    I think rahbuhbuh has a great point. Effective communication of orginal ideas should be a primary goal of a college education. One prohibitive aspect of college life towards this goal is the seclussion of students from surrounding communities and populations. As long as academics continues as theoritical ass-sniffing within circles of those with “higher” education, solutions to the problems of the world will only include input from those with the skills to decode jargon and rhetoric. Encouraging off-campus internships, participatory research, study abroad programs, and volunteer opportunities are all obvious steps many institutions are currently persuing. Whether or not these are priorities depends on the school.

  • dkr

    History-History-History (from a global perspective, not just one version, and include all the parts…even the stuff that is painful to admit)!

  • Media literacy is essential for any person trying to be active in the information age. Using new technology as a tool to enhance and broaden the message of whatever you are doing professionally is key in a world that is mostly flat. As a citizen in a global community and as a participant in mass culture, it is also important to be media litterate in order to avoid being manipulated by being informed on a global level. However, other than that, I think that there is still much room in universities for the cannons of litterature, culture and history. As a student who has tremendously enjoyed all of my college courses, I think that Professors now have much more competition with alternative sources of information, but they are doing a good job and are keeping up with the times. From an extremely privledged position, I think that this debate might be more useful at the High School and Middle School levels that fail to reach students much more frequently than Universities.

  • pryoung

    One thing I find curious about the current effort by Harvard and other institutions to redefine “core” or general education requirements is how much less acrimonious it all seems than during the nineties. Then, as many will recall, such questions unleashed an often bitter debate both within the academy and beyond it. Now all the talk is of the global economy and culture, and how best to prepare students for it. What happened to the culture wars?

  • peggy sue

    dkr – Yes, a broader view of history! In the 1970s Art History was Art History of white European men only. In the 1990s Art history was still Art History of white European men but there were elective side classes on Art from other cultural perspectives including European/American women (a very few European Women/Blacks/Latinos managed to make it in with the big white boys – very token). The change is sooooo very slow. The global perspective unseats a serious power structure. It helps that there are more female and non-white professors. Broadening the view of history rattles the power stucture. White males still hold the power faculty positions.

  • Brendan

    Hey Samnang, I got a BA in German and history, too, but it didn’t lead me to the same conclusion. Technical understanding can be picked up in the real world. I worked as a technical writer for a while about complex financial products, and I taught myself html and general blog installation and maintenance for this gig. This stuff is not rocket science (and lucky for all of us I don’t build rockets for a living).

    My point is, I don’t know that I’d be any farther along in my career if I’d gotten a degree in finance or computer science. It’s so difficult to predict what you might do with your life — in 1997, when I graduated college, I was planning on being a playwright — that to spend four years and many tens of thousands of dollars picking up a “practical skill” seems like a pretty risky bet.

  • jdyer

    Samnang Says:

    “I’d encourage kids to find something practical that will help them make a living. I learned that a BA in German and History doesn’t go that far in the real world. Esoteric subjects may be interesting, but they need to be combined with skills in areas such as technology, medicine or buisness.”

    History majors usually use their degree as a stepping stone for either law school or graduate school.

  • I guess I’m with Brendan. I have degrees in history (2) and economics (1). I realize that Harvard students have a degree of luxury that students at other schools can only dream of. Some might think that Harvard can afford to focus on preparing their graduates to

    1) be citizens of a democracy within a global society

    2) understand themselves as products of–and participants in–traditions of art, ideas, and values

    3) adapt to change, and

    4) understand the ethical dimension of what they say and do (that’s from the Harvard Preliminary thingy cited above this thread)

    while the rest of us should be more focused on saleable skills. But if I took a degree back then in computer science I would have had to relearn almost every single programming language and computing environment. As it is I learned Fortran, DOS, CMS, etc. My first job out of college I took a weeks-long course in JCL. There aren’t enough exclamation points to emphasize how much I would like that time back.

    Most of this new technology stuff is not rocket science. My brother builds model rockets as a hobby. The weekend before last he launched one that passed the speed of sound and climbed to 13,000 ft. He made everything on it himself, from mixing the fuels (it was a liquid-solid hybrid) to constructing all the telemetry stuff. For many years he worked for Hewlett Packard, a company that wanted to promote him to a managerial position. They would not, however, because he had no college degree. Is it so hard to make enough money in our society if you have some sort of degree or other?

    I loved my gen ed classes.

  • I second Brendan’s comment… I was, for about three seconds, a computer science major a long time ago. It quickly turned into Poli Sci, and while it may not have resulted in, well, tons of “marketable” skills, I’ll still take that degree any day over a seemingly narrower degree such as computer science.

    Like Brendan, since graduating in 1991 I’ve moved into radio, have worked as a print journalist, and traveled and lived in several continents and numerous countries for work and for play… and am exploring the non-profit world as my next step. All while learning about the net, and certain basic web skills, and the goo-gobs of technology out there. And I’m (sometimes desperately) trying to sort the wheat from the chaff, the stuff that sticks and is important to the flash-in-the-pan here today gone tomorrow fads and techno doo-dads that nobody really needs.

    In short, classroom skills are really important, but what really counts is life experience, and what you do with it. Oh, and being able to talk about it, and carry a conversation without inserting too many “like” and “you know” etc. in there wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.

  • A masseuse once told me that every college prof she had as a client had at some point unloaded on the table about the depressing state of college teaching today. These were profs from Stanford, Berkeley, and a variety of other smaller schools, including junior colleges. In other words, the gamut. And they were all at a loss to know how to inspire the numbed-out students they were getting in their classes. Turning point: some time in the late eighties. That’s when I knew for sure I was not alone.

    Having taught at a small liberal arts college – where I, along with 90 % of the rest of the faculty became depressed daily at the poor thinking skills and stunning lack of curiosity (and inclination to cheat) shown by the majority of the students, I sometimes think we need two different tracks: one for job quest (a higher form of technical school – get your industry symbiosis here) and one for the timeless academic pursuit of critical thinking, effective communication, responsible global citizenship, broader historical awareness, and so on.

    In the end, I think employers will discover that the latter yields more valuable employees. I think we’ll also find that a whole bunch of kids will “major” in one job, only to find out later that they don’t want to spend a life doing that. But hey, c’est la vie. At least they won’t have spent four years dragging down an academic environment with their palpable ennui. In the mean time, each track may benefit from a more “conducive” educational environment for all concerned.

  • jazzman

    If by the time students enter college, they don’t already have critical thinking skills, (reasoning, data analysis, fallacy recognition etc.) fluency in language/communication and enough math to calculate/understand the fiscal realities in a credit driven society, it really doesn’t matter what the curriculum is.

    Both Harvard and Yale have found it necessary to offer remediation in English because students they have accepted, lack the necessary basic literacy to succeed. When Harvard was founded, it was believed that all the knowledge necessary to be an educated citizen could be inculcated in 4 years. That was pretty much the case until the information explosion after the 2nd world war.

    Today there is exponential growth in available information (if the rate of website growth were plotted (growth vs. time) on a logarithmic scale (which represents exponential growth in a straight line) there would be a steep curve for the last few years and almost vertical in the last year. This proliferation of information has virtually infinitely extended the human mind’s capacity. As long as one has computer and a high speed internet connection everyone has the raw “memory” of the ages. The rub is filtration and application of critical analysis to this information.

    One can effectively purchase the equivalent “knowledge” of college education for less than a $1000 and have effective access to all manner of general knowledge. College except for narrow specialties can now be obviated if one has a working command of English (the imperial language) and access to the web. If colleges are to survive in the new paradigm they need to focus on refining the filtration and application (cooking) of this raw information bonanza.

    A requisite course should be “Separating the BS from the manure” (manure being a metaphor for the information which fertilizes minds.) Courses in civics (which used to be taught in high school), ethics and humanities and professionalism should also be stressed as these are abstract concepts that do not lend themselves to raw information.

    Maybe they could offer courses in Peace,


  • loki

    Susan Gallagher is one of my heros. She was intrumental in bring a voice to the victims of clergy abuse. Also she attempted to educate Cardinal Law who suffered from invincible Ignorance. Go Marthat N. and Susan!

  • tlewis

    “Colleges can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill but to create, when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

    As I college professor, these are my thoughts:

    My conviction is that by college educators committing themselves to globalizing the curriculum and internationalizing campus intellectual culture , we can offer our students the avenue to both world citizenship and knowing themselves better. Becoming an informed world citizen is not in conflict with the ideal of enabling students to deepen their understanding of their own faith traditions.

    If we redefine expertise as reaching for full global scope when addressing topics in the humanities, we open ourselves and our students to the full range of human achievement and, if you will, the full sample of cultural wisdom. By traveling together with our students and not limiting ourselves only to Euro-American data and paradigms, we as faculty can inspire them to access the full scope of global intelligence to address what are to my mind are the most significant issues humanity will face in the 21st Century: promoting understanding between religions, humans finding the religious foundations for a sustainable environmental ethic, the means of nurturing spiritual peace in a world of constant change, and clarifying the connection between our material and spiritual life.

    My conviction for all disciplines is that the intellectual adventure of the next decades will be to overcome the ethnocentrisms in every field of the humanities and re-conceptualize their foundations in global perspective. Starting down this exciting path in my view must now be a desideratum of the finest liberal arts education.


  • bsavvy

    Great books about how to question–of course, from the Bible and the Greeks on. David Denby’s list is as good as any. But more important than what’s on the list, is that students on campus all have the same list. Students will learn from each other into the wee hours of the night, not from professors. They need to have common texts to argue about.

  • loki

    What about IF Stone’s history of Plato and Socrates?

  • Professor Gallagher just mentioned in the show that she responds to the cynicism of her students by teaching them to decode news articles, finding the untruths coded therein. Isn’t that, to some extent–that recognition that everybody is bending the truth to sell something–the root of their cynicism in the first place? How does that less it, and if it doesn’t, then what can?

  • greenfinch

    Professor Gallagher (I believe) mentioned how students do not seem to be interested in accuracy. As a life long learner, I am experiencing frustration in my job because attention to detail, attention to language, truth and accuracy is increasingly being considered less important than and not necessary to making money. Get in, get something done fast, get paid, get out. If business is also falling victim to this lack of ability to be present, be thoughtful, be truthful, be accurate, then there is no incentive for the students to care about these things.

  • polsmeth


    Logic allows critical thinking and evaluation of all other knowledge. You can see the logical fallacies in advertising and other ways\places that try to influence public thinking without evidence.

    How to find VALID information.

    Not just any information, but information that stands up to tests of evidence FOR and to tests of evidence AGAINST


    What it is and how it works.


    Languages and how to use them.

  • There it is again, David Shaffer says “A lawyer, a doctor and an engineer all decide things differently.” Epistemology differs by academic field as well as by profession. If the way we decide what is truth differs, so do the truths. Knowledge is socially constructed, and students see that their professors disagree with one another.

    I agree that such cynicism is problematic. But it also seems an honest stance, unfortunately one that has to make its peace with ignorance.

  • barry obrien

    Culture has shaped our educational process. It has moved from the colleges to the television, viral (strret) education, marketing… Blending the relationship between the realities of the students life experiences with the educational expertise of the achedemic institutions is the path to the future of American Education. Imagine 200 digital radio “stations,” formated like Open Source, each staying within a discipine such as History, Biology, etc…on 24 X 7.

  • rahbuhbuh

    Relating back to many posts ago…

    Tech programs get a bad wrap. When you teach someone a very practical skill like coding, they learn critical thinking. After so many hours logged in front of a monitor, their skills of analysis, dissection, synthesis, blah blah blah become rooted. It greases the wheels to faster fluency in the next mandatory programmng language. I have little doubt that the crazy web and Flash coders I know, or the programmers in the medical tech world making the big MRI machines buzz in new ways, wouldn’t be able to learn the methodology of business plans, cooking recipes, or musical composition. Those systems just use different languages. A former car mechanic friend adapted his “search for the clanking noise and make it stop” mentality to authoring legal contracts dripping in difficult intellectual property clauses.

    But, Harvard is not a tech school. These elite students are in a position to enter and affect change in multinational corporations. How will their under graduate studies (or impressive degree acronyms acquired later) train them to reallign their vantage point and allegiances? What is required to supress their geographic, religious, ethnic, and cultural bias to do what is “right” as an employee AND world citizen. How do you ensure the students don’t warp a sense of self and place in exchange for global awareness?

  • jdyer

    Brendan Says:

    October 11th, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    “Hey Samnang, I got a BA in German and history, too, but it didn’t lead me to the same conclusion. Technical understanding can be picked up in the real world. I worked as a technical writer for a while about complex financial products, and I taught myself html and general blog installation and maintenance for this gig. This stuff is not rocket science (and lucky for all of us I don’t build rockets for a living).

    For once, I agree with Brendan. One can always combine what one learns with other skills. The BA one gets in college need not determine the rest of one’s life.

  • Wow… I agree with jdyer AND Brendan!

  • desertrose

    Geography & history (from the point of view of other nations) should be an integral part of higher education, so that our future leaders would know where Pakistan is located on the world map *smile*, and may be then they won’t rush us to never ending wars.

  • rc21

    What colleges should really teach is reading, math, and some classes on the people and events that formed our nation. Perhaps classes on the constitution,revolution, things of this nature. We also need classes on many of the great leaders of the 1700’s Washington,Jefferson,Adams,Hamilton. Just to name a few. The Bill of rights should be a required class.

    The NAAL reports that just 31% of college grads are ”proficient” in their ability to read prose. Many are also woefully incapable of solving simple math problems. When it comes to American civics and American History, forget it. Most dont know who we fought in the revolution. They dont know both Germany and Japan were our enemy in ww2.etc etc.

    I read posts that suggest we need to teach the value of other cultures.We need to teach people about global citizenship. We need to teach kids about our own culture first.

    I found Professor Lewis comments quite interesting. I must disaree with almost everything he said. If our college grads cant read or do simple math,or even have a basic grasp of American history and the great men who gave us the freedom we have today, why on earth would we expect, or even want to move in another direction.

    You can’t teach someone to run before they have learned to walk.

  • rc21, That report is complicated and can be pretty misleading. Consider that it shows that only 4 percent of high school graduates are “proficient” in prose literacy. In that report, proficiency is defined as the ability to read “lengthly, complex, abstract prose texts as well as [to synthesize] information and [make] complex inferences.” This kind of reading proficiency is a problem not of literacy as the word is usually used (ability to read) but of the ability to contextualize what one has read and use the information effectively and create new information from it. That’s not an easy thing to teach in four years. That kind of facility with a broad range of information requires a life-long committment to learning (but a good liberal education is a solid step on such a journey).

  • jordon

    in a perverse way, the overeducation of the middle class (that is, the growing number of us who need master’s degrees to make a living) may actually free up undergraduates to pursue “learning for learning’s sake” cirricula without feeling the pressure to study something imminently practical. after all, no one these days secures a career with just a bachelor’s, right?

  • thomas

    I graduated college in 2005 and –deciding I didn’t need a graduate program — I began running wild on the internet, chasing a dream soaking in ALL the world’s knowledge, becoming a true cyber-self-didact. Hell, I had RadioOpenSource for culture, the arts, and world politics, every newsRSSfeed i could imagine for world news and politics, WikipediaHowto’s for practical matters, technorati for blogs on any topic. I was learning basic html, how to cook for myself, reading way too much information all of the time, with little output or focus. I thought I was “following my bliss” (as the self-didact Joseph Campbell recommended), but I was really just giving myself a big headache, daily. I was taking so much in while not making any output in return.

    I found I was constantly running up against the limits of my attention span and the limits of my own cognition. At times I felt like I was going crazy –too much shit in my head.

    And so I have tried to figure out the root of my angst and I think it goes back to the fact that I played soccer growing up and while I was in school. I never tried to learn the guitar, or to paint, or to write, or to work on cars. Now I don’t have a sport to take up my time and I missed the first time around learning the delights of making something. The times when I have felt less crazy are the times I have engaged in some creative process with some true output. I never saw the importance of a learning a craft while I was in school. I never appreciated so much why we must create; we’re trying not to go NUTS.

    I think that’s why I enjoy cooking so much these days. There is something to enjoy at the end of my effort.

  • Great show! if only y’all could of worked the chow hound in to it… oh well.

  • bpaulemile

    This show was of particular interest to me as one interested in education and well worth the time devoted to listening to it. I wish to compliment the speakers whose commitment to advancing learning was thought-provoking and powerful. This discussion connects with a dialogue that is on-going … democratic society and the need to have a thinking populace, particularly in these times. Our survival is threatened without it. In fact, the lack of critical thinkers in today’s society is the threat.

    More than anyone, however, kudos to Chrostopher Lydon, our public intellectual, whose incisive mind burrows through all subjects to advance critical thinking on the part of us all. Chris, you are a gift!!! Could your show be extended to 2 hours? On the station that you left, your interests, focus, voice intonation and even hesitations are copycatted in shallow, pitiful ways. We need more of the real thing … your relentlessly probing mind shooting off critical thoughts and ideas. Like many others, I try to never miss a hearing. THANKS FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION. WE NEED MORE OF YOUR TIME ON THE AIR!!! HOW ABOUT IT? IS YOUR STATION LISTENING???

  • There’s really no coherent way to concisely sum up and explain all that I’ve listened to and read in the past hour or so. This topic is so broad and far-reaching that it ought to be broken down and followed up upon (as one poster commented).

    I do agreee with orangescissor however; that this discussion may be more appropriately targeted at middle school/ high school education and cirriculums. I think it’s the process by which we are taught and “forced” to learn at early ages that is the root of the “learning deficiency” in our society. To label it with ‘global strife’ issues or ‘lack of literacy’ issues is convenient, but it fails to recognize that we are not “built” to learn effectively.

    Anyone who’s recently been through any formal education or is closely connected to it on an intimate level will recognize that students are taught to imbibe information for short periods of time, only to then recollect that information for a certain test and then forget it all. It’s maddening if you ask me, because the information was used as a tool to offer a grade, as an ends to a means, not as a way to enlighten or educate the students mind or soul.

    I believe Kurt Vonnegut stated, “People will continue to write novels, or maybe short stories, because they discover they are treating their own neuroses … Practicing any art — be it painting, music, dance, literature, or whatever — is not a way to make money or become famous. It´s a way to make your soul grow.”

    This quote is important, not just because it is true, but because he recognizes that we needn’t be absolute scholars in all that we do. Accuracy, as spoken about in the show, IS important, but an all-inclusive/ proficient knowledge in all things in the world is not essential to a well rounded/ well educated/ well communicative person. We learn and inquire, as Kurt so eloquently stated, because it is cathartic and helps to soften our souls.

    To me, there is nothing wrong with a person who knows a little bit about everything, but is expert in only a few.

  • perikles

    The German majors among you may recall the warning of Goethe that every generation has to win back for itself the accumulated wisdom of our culture. One response to this truth has been despair. Isn’t there too much to “recover” every 30 years or so? Yes. Shouldn’t the explosion of science and technology dictate that those fields take absolute precedence over humanities? No. Moreover, there is only so much that can be “covered” in an undergraduate curriculum. True, but Goethe’s warning hangs over us like What’s-His-Name’s sword, and the only solution (in my opinion) is a core curriculum emphasizing the classic works–not just Greek and Roman, but all works of literature, art and philosophy that are likely to stand the test of time. Selection is a huge responsibility and will always be controversial. Also, inevitably, much will be lost, especially as we take shortcuts such as deemphasizing language learning, a crucial part of our cultural inheritance, or making it serve only a “practical” purpose. Regarding my own field, I suppose Greek will probably go the way of Sanskrit and Hebrew. Even what students encounter in translation will be a dangerously small sampling, so that at best they will have read, for example, a single Greek play of the over 50 extant dramas. As fewer and fewer professors themselves have a firm grasp on the cultural heritage, a new, ominous set of problems arises. But the task of becoming aware of the vast cultural heritage and, yes, critical of it–since you can’t criticize what you don’t understand–is a matter of life and death. As Plato makes Socrates say moments before his own death, “Noble is the prize, and great the hope.”

  • dkr

    After listening to the podcast, I have a couple random thoughts.

    We speak about the importance of education. Yet, after one graduates, we need a society that values our accomplishments in higher education, global understanding, multi-lingual capabilities, and critical thinking. If this society wants educated, global thinkers, then why don’t they hire us, let alone pay us so that we can cover our student loan debt? It appears to me that the very fact that students have to go deep into debt to get education, at unprecedented levels, and then fight to get a job that will pay for the debt, expresses that society is not valuing higher education. Does this country want us to be educated or not? The messages are mixed, at best. We are bogged down, when attending University, because we are carrying the burden of paying for an extremely high cost of education. Once we graduate, with high levels of debt, we are limited in our choices because we need to make enough money to pay our debt. This decreases the number of qualified individuals willing to take low paying jobs in the non-profit sector that would ultimately benefit greater society. We have not begun to see the ramifications of this. Many capable global thinkers, who are burdened with student loans, move into the private sector in order to make enough money to pay off their debt instead of engaging in fields that they are trained in (through higher education) because they can’t afford it.

    This debate about education is good but leaves out the burden of cost. For many, our societal structures are isolating and burdening for students. The higher cost of education is discouraging to part of the population who would otherwise engage so it is clear to me that this is an important part of the discussion on the crisis in liberal education. I can not count the number of individuals who have told me that they went to college, decades ago, for a miniscule fraction (comparitively) of the cost. They marvel at how much it costs now. I think to myself, why are you not up in arms about how much it costs us?! Why do we not have the same right as you to afford college?! I politely suggest you do a show on cost.

  • rc21

    It. is quite easy to keep college costs down. First attend a local community college for 2 years,then transfer to the closest state university. You can get a degree for about 15 grand give or take a little.

    If you want to attend a private college than it should be up to you to foot the bill. Also you can join the service and get most of your education if not all, paid for by uncle Sam. No need to complain. I never read in the constitution or bill of rights where it said anything about a college education,or what the cost should or should not be.

  • sindrepb

    This may very well be the wrong place to ask, and it may very well be an ironic illustration on at least part of the problem with education today, but I couldn’t quite catch the name of the author or the title of the book that Martha Nussbaum mentioned while talking about the internet as an outlet for intelectuals. Can anyone help me in finding this book?

  • susanekg

    I think that the book mentioned was Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com: http://www.pupress.princeton.edu/chapters/s7014.html

  • dkr

    RC21, your entitled to your opinion, and so am I. I’m not the only one talking about this issue. You don’t have to agree with my perceptions but please keep your thoughts on my complaining to yourself. Go to a state university, where the tuition has gone up drastically in the past four years, say what you said to me and see what kind of responses you receive.

  • rc21

    To dkr: Are you saying that I am wrong in my estimate of 15k for a college education give or take a few grand, if one goes the route that I have suggested.

    I am not offering it as opinion,but as fact. I know people who have gone that route and are quite happy. No need to pay 40k a year for a private college.

    As I said before college is a choice not a right. So really I dont think anyone should complain. I didn’t mean to single you out specifically, but it was your post that I was responding to.

    Another thing, at most state colleges if you are eligible for financial aid you will recieve it. I know people who have paid little or nothing to go to college. If you fill out the FAFSA form you can find out what your eligible for. If you are not eligible it is because you or your parents are already making a nice salary.

    I reread your post. Sorry I just dont see any real validity to your statements. Other than the fact that college cost more today than it did decades ago. No suprise there. pretty much everything costs more today than decades ago.If you think the cost of college is high, try comparing the cost of an average house in todays market to the same house a couple of decades ago. Now that is something to complain about.

  • Samnang

    To Brendon and others: I cannot say I regret my German and History BA. It has served me well as a now starving teacher of ESL and as a student of two additional languages. I enjoy what I do and my education (which is continually being updated) has served me well.

    So, maybe, I take back my previous statement.

    Still, I don’t think one can step out of University with a degree in hand and walk into a job. It wouldn’t hurt to encourage kids to think a bit about their pocketbooks while they are planning their educations.

  • jazzman

    rc21: I agree with you – you can’t teach someone to run until they’ve learned to walk, and walking is the responsibility of primary school – running is the job of high school.

    The way you suggest (2 years community college – with transferable credits) then transferring to a state college for the balance is the only way I could finance my children’s education. 2 years of Community College at approx. $1200/semester and the balance at a Salem State College at approx. 6K/Year (through Stafford Loans) because FAFSA only considers my total salary (my wife hasn’t worked for an income since we married) and doesn’t consider my basic living expenses (according to Kerry Healey, I’m over-housed) even though I live hand to mouth – no luxuries/vacations or dining out (OK maybe 5 or 6 times a year.) I’m not complaining as I am still able to provide my kids the opportunity.

    If college is a necessity (which I question) to maintain a strong competitive state/workforce then it should be funded by the state as is K-12. The problem with college today is the 400 year old paradigm that most higher education still maintains. I could have dropped out of high school my junior year and have essentially the same intellectual knowledge and ability from just surviving with no college whatsoever. If I were to recommend a lucrative career path to anyone today it would be to pursue a vocational trade as they are valued far more than we engineers and those jobs can’t be outsourced. The apprentice concept (now practically obsolete) served society exceptionally well.

    College is still necessary to train specialists and the primary/secondary education curricula needs to be revamped as well. Parochial school curricula minus the religion would be a good start but a Mastery system is what’s really needed i.e., no one gets promoted from a subject until a mastery of that subject is demonstrated – no matter how long it takes. The mechanical model of promote whether or not the student has mastered the subject matter at that grade level is largely an economics driven decision (although it is ostensibly to avoid poor self esteem) has resulted in a poorly educated largely ignorant populace of 20-50 year olds (many with college degrees!) A college degree only says that someone managed to toe the line for 4 years and pass by some means and nothing about the quality of either the graduate or the education received.

    It all boils down to individuals, those who desire an education will get one college or not and those who are avoiding real life or attempting to find themselves can buy some expensive time to do so. In my experience of working in the high tech industry for almost 30 years, I have seen useless workers with or without college degrees and brilliant, innovative workers with or without degrees. The cachet of a BS or other degree may impress a hiring manager but if you can’t do the job you won’t last.

  • rc21

    To Jazzman; We usually dont agree on to many things ,but I would say that I am almost in total agreement with everything you just said.

    I got most of my education paid for by the milatary.

  • dkr

    I didn’t realize posting here would be such an unpleasent experience.

    I have zero interest in continuing a pointless discussion with such entrenched positions.

  • Pingback: Higher Education in a New Era « Disparate()