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Connecting the Dots

What we should get out of a college education

By Hannah E. S. wright, Crimson Staff Writer

There comes a time in each of our lives when we reflect on the events of the past. We look back on the choices we made, and the experience we garnered, and from the accumulated dust of our memories we try to piece together some sense of meaning or purpose so that at the end of the day we aren’t left with that nagging suspicion that even we have no idea what the hell we were thinking.

For senior social studies concentrators, this time comes around the second week of April. After three weeks of post-thesis bliss, we are faced with a harsh truth: In order to collect our much-awaited thesis comments, we have to turn in an “intellectual biography” that melds all of our social studies coursework into a coherent plan of study.

As I looked over my rather eclectic range of concentration courses, I was a tad concerned. I’ve dabbled in the philosophies of 19th century liberals and 20th century anarchists, traced cultural developments in Renaissance Italy and Nazi Germany, and studied the legal and economic challenges to public education and the ethical questions raised by biotechnology. Coherence? You’ve got to be kidding me.

For all my trepidation, however, I found that when forced to consider the question, I had a surprisingly easy time drawing connections between seemingly disparate subjects. The trick was looking past the subject matter.

As we sit in the midst of a curricular review that promises to touch every aspect of academic life, it is critical that we form some conception of what the purpose of a college education should be, specifically one committed to a liberal arts tradition.

General requirements for a college education are becoming increasingly relevant as the percentage of high school seniors attending some institution of higher education has doubled since the 1970s. But a college degree is meaningless unless it signifies that graduates are properly prepared to enter economic, social, and civic life. After a 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research found that more than 50 percent of students at four-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex “literacy” tasks like analyzing news articles or calculating a tip at a restaurant, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education (COFHE) actually recommended mandatory standardized testing for college students to ensure they were graduating with the appropriate skills.

With due respect to the folks over at COFHE, they’ve got it all wrong. The “literacy” with which they are concerned is inarguably essential, but incorrectly assigned. That 50 percent of four-year graduates are unable to calculate a tip is inexcusable, but rather than blame it on the fact they avoid math classes in college, why not ask how they passed high school not knowing how to take 15 percent. Standardized tests in secondary schools are intended to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary tools to succeed in college. This implies that a proper college education will rely on the three R’s, rather than merely review them. The fundamentals of a high school education can be honed in college, and indeed they should, but their presence can’t be what makes a college education unique.

For my part, I believe that the distinction between high school and college “literacy” is well-illustrated by The New York Times. It is one thing to have the capacity to read the Times cover to cover, to glean from the articles that interest rates are rising. It’s quite another to consider these facts as merely a starting place. A truly literate reader should be able to give interest rates a significance beyond their numeric limits, to connect them to her current conception of the world.

This doesn’t mean we all need a firm background in the intricacies of fiscal policy. In fact, part of the beauty of this type of literacy is that both a specialist and a generalist can gain insight from the same set of facts. The former may understand the implications for future research in far greater detail, but the latter can still appreciate the contribution to the big picture.

Promoting this sort of literacy could be what liberal arts schools do best. Distribution requirements have ready-made potential to expose students to the big questions and founding principles of disciplines other than their own.

The problem, as education guru Parker Palmer so aptly put it, is that we tend to “think the world apart,” treating each subject as if it should be examined within a bubble. Core classes too often fill us with names, dates, formulas, and theories for some infinitesimally small subset of a field’s body of knowledge rather than teaching us how these facts can be applied to our general understanding of the body as a whole, much less other disciplines. At the very best, Cores tend to be structured as if “ways of approaching knowledge” are equivalent to “ways of gathering information,” providing us with valuable skills for delving deeper into a similar subject, but failing to explain how we should interpret what we find.

Looking back on four years of classes has forced me to draw connections, and I see now that a class on film can offer insights into human psychology, a grasp of regulatory economics can inform research proposals for environmental engineering, and in my case, a veritable course catalog of disciplines can offer insight into the relationship between social values and political decision-making. I only wish I’d realized it sooner.

Hannah E. S. Wright ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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