First Class

September 01, 2004

Thoughts after the first class.

My first day of classes is pretty standard no matter which class I am teaching.
I introduce myself
I have the kids introduce themselves to each other as part of my attempt to build a community of scholars
I go through the long, tedious, and scary syllabus - you have to make things clear, and that means a draconian syllabus and an understanding professor.
I begin the ritual forgetting of their names.
And we have a discussion, the same discussion every time although I get to my point in various ways.

I call the discussion "Why History? Why _____ History?" with the blank being filled in with the subject matter of that particular class. When I teach Western Civ we talk some about the difference between Western Civ and Modern Europe, this time I focused more on the role of history in a liberal arts education.

I had the kids do a board exercise - they tossed out ideas, I made them defend their suggestions, and the results went onto the blackboard: If you were suddenly named to the core curriculuum committee of [name] University, what classes or skills would you insist on making everyone learn because, well, no well-educated person should be without these skills.

Try it yourself - make a quick list if only in your mind, and then move to the extended entry.

Students at both schools, Urban Research University and Suburban State School, ended up at the same final point, but they got there by very different paths, in part because an exercise like that generally follows the direction of the first person to speak.

So at URU the first person to speak insisted that everyone should have an introduction to the humanities, part of that school's extensive liberal arts core, because cultural literacy is an important part of education. From there they quickly moved through cultural literacy and self-knowledge to personal capability - writing, numeracy - and thence to political awareness. They emphasized psychology, because (feh, wrote this on the board and erased before transcribing, paraphrase) "that is how you know who you are talking to when you talk to yourself," literature, and the like. They also had a strong focus on citizenship, including local history and local studies, political science, sociology, and so on. I have a pretty impressive group at URU - a Kuwait vet, three entrepeneurs, a couple of audio-video professionals, actors, singers, a member of a signed rock band, and of course the smart suburban kids who make the bulk of the population at America's elite and sub-elite universities.

Suburban State took it a different direction. The first person to speak emphasized that a core was a bad idea, that rather than requiring people to study things there should be no requirements but rather high expectations that they would choose to form themselves into well-rounded individuals. The next suggestion focused on writing because expressing oneself is a key life skill, and from there the kids quickly moved to an extensive list of life skills - writing, public speaking, numeracy, etc - and thence to cultural literacy. They had very few suggestions for good citizenship - no political science or sociology - although we also had not made a lot of time for that. In addition our discussion of why history moved quickly into a public policy discussion as we looked at the basic proposal that we study history in order to learn from the past. The kid who suggested history fessed up immediately that he had suggested it because he thought I was fishing for it, not because he could explain why it mattered, but that then led to a useful discussion of why it mattered.

In the end I was able to steer both classes to my big point, the point I had intended to make with the whole exercise. I argue that a good liberal arts education will make a person more capable in their economic life, richer in their individual life, and a better citizen in their public life. History hits all three of those bells, if only because the reading, interpreting, and writing skills that form the basics of the discipline translate well to any career that involves discovering and then making sense of a mix of reliable and unreliable information.

Go back to your list. Did you cover all three aspects? Was there something in there that I left out? Comment comment comment!

Class went better at Suburban State, but the kids at Urban Research were more impressive.

And so to prepare for the class on first contact. I think I will give the Hiawatha lecture, not only because I can, but because the reading is scant on Indians and I have to make sure they are covered well during class.

Posted by Red Ted at September 1, 2004 09:18 PM | TrackBack

Totally OT: My friend Jennifer at has an old recipe that has some confusing directions about yeast. Since you know more about scratch baking than anyone else I know, maybe you can take a look and see if the suggestions she's getting make sense.

On topic: this is an interesting little exercise. I tend towards the directed curriculum myself I think. I also think I'd enjoy having you as an instructor.

Posted by: Ted at September 2, 2004 08:18 PM

Thanks for the vote of confidence.

I went and made some sleepy and incoherent suggestions on Jen's bread post. That looks like a yummy cake she is making, and I might have to try it myself.

Posted by: Ted K at September 2, 2004 10:22 PM

Taking a cue from Heinlein (*), my list would have been: college-level writing and reading (no bonehead lit classes filled with books everyone wants read but no one wants to read though); mathematics (pre-calc algebra, basic statistics at a minimum), sciences (one semester each in physics, chemistry, biology and maybe geology), philosophy (logic and intro to crit. reasoning, maybe some kind of intro to Western philosophy survey), computer science (basic computer literacy including operation of consumer hardware; students should be able to install their own peripherals and use the Internet) and history (at least one semester in US and one in world if possible).

I'll get shot for saying this, but a liberal arts education is useless and no one needs one. The idea that universities should provide one is a fossil left over from the days when the purpose of universities was to train the cultural elite. That's no longer the case, and hasn't been for generations. There is neither need nor point in stuffing peoples' heads full of a load of humanities nonsense they will never, ever use. I was able to CLEP past almost all of that and I'm quite thankful for it.

(*) "The three-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, language, and mathematics. Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn. But if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots." -- RAH

Posted by: DFH at September 4, 2004 10:33 PM

Wow DFH really takes a stand on Liberal Arts ed..
Maybe to much Heinlein!! I personally really was lucky to have been steered into my Uni's Liberal Arts course. My predisposition was to become a mad scientist, if I hadn't have suffered through the humanities, I wouldn't have found my true purpose.
What does Educated mean? Where do we draw the line and say alright if you understand these points your educated and if you don't well......
Geometry, Biology, World History, Eastern and Western Philosophy, American Literature, Communication, all papers hand written in script that is readable and publishable. And one other language, must be able to read, write and communicate.

Posted by: larkinsjapn at September 5, 2004 02:18 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?