Take this course. It’s good for you.

Why do universities inflict such needless pain?

My recent post on bumping up grades led to some interesting discussion about required courses. I don’t mean a particular course deemed essential for any major (e.g. Shakespeare may be required for English majors; organic chemistry may be need for chemistry majors and so on). I mean those requirements that students typically take in first year, whatever their major turns out to be.

At my university they’re called “core” requirements. At some places they’re called distribution requirements. In all places, they give many students headaches, if not nightmares. Why bother with these requirements? Why should a prospective history major need to take a course in the physical sciences? Why should a student who is planning on becoming a nurse take a course in literature? Wouldn’t their time be better spent studying subjects related to their chosen disciplines and careers?

There, of course, is the rub. The question is serious and it gets to the heart of higher education: what, ultimately, is it for? If you are an idealist like me, you think it is for education in its broadest and deepest senses. Higher education trains the mind to be critical and the imagination to be active. It teaches skepticism and creativity. It teaches broad-mindedness and, one hopes, a modicum of compassion comes along with that.

It is for this reason that universities frequently require this range of courses. The university, if grudgingly and less and less all the time, still tends to accept the idea that anyone with a bachelor’s degree ought to have a certain breadth of knowledge and a certain range of reading and experience. A comparative literature student may be just a comp lit major while she is a student, but when she graduates she will continue to be a citizen. And many of our pressing social questions make more sense to those who have at least some idea of what science is and how it works. Similarly, the humanities — English, Philosophy and the like– demand of us that we think deeply about the most profound questions of life itself. Every educated person should have to confront these questions of ethics, of religion, of value. Frankly, when I am dying, I would feel better knowing my nurse has read King Lear.

But distribution requirements demand that university faculty, Deans, and others think carefully about just how broad a range of courses they can demand. Until recently, my university required arts students to complete not just a course in the history and philosophy of science, but also a course in mathematics (or something similar like accounting or statistics). When it was proposed that the math requirement be eliminated (students hated it, and often failed it, and some stayed away from the university because of it), I, and many others were uncertain. After all, wasn’t a competency in mathematics necessary to understand politics, science, and a host of other areas? Isn’t numeracy, in some ways, as important as literacy?

Eventually, I came to favour the change to remove math as a strict requirement (it can now fulfill that science requirement, along with many other courses). My thinking was that mathematics was such a specialized skill that many very good students, even if they worked hard, would struggle. And why should they have to have a D on their transcripts for the rest of their lives, just to please us idealists? Especially when they still had to take something in the area of the sciences, plus a social science, English, and so on.

In general, though, these requirements don’t really cause that many problems for students who are willing to approach them with an open mind. Some of my best English students are science majors, and most universities science departments put on special courses for Arts students to let them meet those requirements.

So, to all you first-year students out there, struggling to understand Plato as you struggle to understand why you have to study Plato, take heart. Though you may not see it now, it is good for you.