Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Thursday, November 17, 2005
 
A Little More On Education

So I had thought that after my somewhat cranky reaction to the composition of Slate's college education panel yesterday morning, it might be nice to follow up having RTFA, but I could not open Slate all morning. Now they're opening, but I shall have to download the articles and read them later.

There were a lot of interesting comments in response to yesterday's post, and I'm hoping for more, because they all provide a lot of food for thought. I'd like to clarify and elaborate on my points.
After reading the comments, here are some ideas, all rather off the cuff. For all I know they're sitting there, fleshed out, in Slate's panel, but I can't check!

1) A mathematical booster shot in college might be called for. Maybe it's too much to ask college students to learn more math, but they should at least leave having as much as they did entering. Moreover, the booster shot could be more enticingly tailored to be about the trials and tribulations of modern citizenship. Lessons in statistics that are motivated by poker would be less objectionable if given to adults rather than to impressionable teens.

2) Instead of making science and math classes easier by watering them down, they should be made easier by stretching them out. Can't handle the rigourous pace of Intro Calculus as it's required of math and physics majors? Well, you don't really need that pace anyway. That pace is necessary for science majors so they can finish everything they need to learn before they graduate. So instead of one hard and fast four unit class, how about two gentle two unit classes that each go very slowly but very thoroughly? Or, instead of creating a separate curriculum for non-majors, how about only creating a separate environment? The curve would be less punishing. Probably too expensive a solution for a public university, but it seems like Ivy league students, at least, could demand more for their money this way.

This gets us to a third problem. Echan told me that one of the reasons future law students avoid math and science classes they might have happily taken in high school is they're terrified of having their GPA sunk, and a C in Organic Chemistry would be much worse than not having attempted it at all. Even when I was still a biology major, my biology advisors told me that a B in physics for physicists would be much worse for biology grad school or medical school than an A in physics for biologists, even though the advisors felt they were equally likely outcomes.

Either these fears are false or graduate and professional programs really are that dense in overrelying on the straight GPA and not analyzing the structure of a trascript. If it's mythology, then humanities professors need to work hard to debunk that theory, and let their students know it's better to be challenged and stumble than stay in safe comfort zones. If it's not a mythology, then it should be made one. I'd much rather have lawyers who had straight As in law-related classes but also challenged themselves with astronomy and statistics rather than padding out their As with more of the same. Even if a future lawyer or journalist did poorly compared to future astronomers and statisticians, those C's should still be badges of honor and adventure.

There is also a whole related debate on good teaching vs. bad teaching. I'd like to clarify that I'm not saying that math does not require any memorization or rote learning, just that well understood math will not reduce to only memorization and rote learning. A more expert, if somewhat more sharper-tongued, blogger on this matter is sometime Canadian college math instructor Moebius Stripper over at Tall Dark and Mysterious. She's just switched jobs, and I'm not sure if her new one involves teaching, but trawling her archives is a good way to be both scandalized and amused at the state of math education. The comments are often particularly good. She dislikes giving calculators to small children. She also found this frightening gem of a college newspaper editorial by one Stacy Perk, University of Iowa journalism student extrordinaire:
I remember complaining about how I'd never use knowledge I gained in the classroom in real life. I regretted all the time I devoted to school because, in the end, I didn't remember the algebraic equations, historical dates, or the periodic table.

A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn't learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid. . .

The school system needs a reality check; most students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn't a waste.

Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet. I worried that these classes - ones that I would never use - were going to hurt my chances of getting into the journalism school, which has a 3.0 GPA requirement. As it turned out, my GPA was below 3.0 after my first year. I had to take summer classes to raise it, and luckily, I was eventually admitted to the J-school. I can not imagine what I would have done if I were not admitted. I would have had to change my major.

How is this fair? I shouldn't have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low - all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let's just get rid of them.
I hope and pray this was ironic, maybe even a prank, especially given the writer's name. Even if it turns out to be fake, in its sarcasm it encapsulates the extreme of the position which I am opposing. If it's real--yikes.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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