Oberlin Blogs

Requirement Blues

January 29, 2011

It seems so incredibly simple: You spend four years in college to learn stuff, lots of stuff, learn like crazy: knowledge and skills; breadth and depth; theory and practice; majors and minors; quantitative and verbal; humanities, social, and natural sciences. And when you've learned a whole bunch, you've earned yourself a shiny B.A.

That's all well and good. Once you try to be more specific, though, you quickly run into trouble. What exactly should every Oberlin graduate know and be able to do by the time they walk up to the commencement stage? How do we know that she knows? And how do we make sure that her coursework allows her to actually learn it? Those are the million-dollar questions. To put them in slightly more technical terms: What are the minimal knowledge and skills necessary to warrant an Oberlin degree? How do we assess whether students actually have that knowledge and those skills by the time they graduate? And how do we design our courses and requirements so that all students can, and will, acquire them in four years' time? Every one of these questions is riddled with complications. (Yes, sorry, I am going to go into those complications now. You might sit down and get yourself a drink before reading on.)

Let's take an example from my own neck of the woods. Should all Oberlin graduates be proficient in more than one language? Currently there is nothing in the course catalog that stipulates that. In other words, Oberlin has no foreign language requirement. (The term "foreign language" is a misnomer, of course. Spanish is as much a major US language as English is. It'd be more accurate to say that students are not currently required to become proficient in any language other than English.)

But let's say that we, the faculty and administration, are changing our minds on this point, and decide that, in this globalized world, all graduates should really speak and write more than one language proficiently. The questions we then run into are practical: What do we mean by proficiency? Is the intermediate level--roughly two years' worth of coursework--enough, or should we lay the bar higher? Can we honestly do that without obliging all students to spend significant time abroad? (There's a widespread sense, not unjustified, that in-class, on-campus language instruction can only go so far.) But can all students afford to go abroad? And what does all of that mean for the staffing needs in language instruction?

Let's say we solve all these problems and demand advanced proficiency in two languages of all students. (How great would that be: To know that all Oberlin graduates are at least bilingual!) Is five semesters of passing-level coursework and a semester abroad enough proof of their language skills? Or should we have some kind of proficiency test before graduation? And would this proficiency entail only language (grammar, idiom), or cultural knowledge as well?

Another example: Let's say we agree that all Oberlin graduates should have a solid basis in history. Why not? I mean, how embarrassing would it be if a recent Oberlin grad would not know the Battle of Thermopylae, the causes of the French Revolution, the years of the Vietnam war, or when and why Martin Luther hammered his 95 theses to that poor church door in Wittenberg? But wait--is the ability to recite facts from the past really what we mean by a "basis in history"? Is history just a passive knowledge of things that happened somewhere in the past, somewhere in the world? (While we're at it: all of the past? Everywhere in the world? Should Oberlin privilege, say, U.S. or Western history over history elsewhere? Or privilege the last two or three centuries over the many millennia that went before? A quick look at the staffing and course catalog shows that we, in fact, are doing just that...) Or is history something else: a set of methods, a way of thinking, a sophisticated understanding of the ways in which present situations always emerge out of chains of past developments, and the ways in which, from the present, we may approximate, but never fully grasp, the way that past really, eigentlich, was?

Let's say we agree on an answer on that last point. How we do ensure that every Oberlin student acquires the historical knowledge and skills we have defined as essential? Make sure they cannot graduate without having taken a number of history courses? But what courses exactly? And who determines what counts as a "history" course anyway? At this point, among faculty in the humanities and social sciences, history is much like photography: everyone does it, all the time. There are historians who teach outside of the History department. Even worse (the horror!): there are non-historians, like myself, who regularly teach history. (What am I supposed to do? Our history department has no specialist in Spain.)

But let's assume for the sake of argument that we manage to resolve all these questions, and come up with a set of history-related courses every Oberlin student should take. How do we know that what's taught in those courses is learned by the students enrolled in them? "Simple," you'll say: "If they pass the course, they know the material." But is that really the case? What does it mean to "know the material"? Pedagogy is complicated business. Teaching is about more than transferring knowledge. How much does a student really retain from a two-hour lecture or three hundred skimmed pages? On the other hand, can we ask students to engage in seminar-style discussions on topics they barely grasp? 

Enough already: you get my drift. Figuring out graduation requirements is much more difficult than it seems. And that's not just true for what we used to call "general ed" but at the level of majors and minors as well.

Before I sign off, let me introduce one final, hugely complicating factor. Who is the "we" I keep referring to? Who should determine what students should be learning? The dean? The faculty? The departments? Here we run into the great paradox of the modern university and its elective system. In practice, "we"--the course designers, the grade givers, the degree granters--cannot, and don't want to, tell you what courses to take. We want you to develop and follow your own interests. We're just facilitating your becoming your excellent, successful, well-rounded self. In that sense you, the students, are our customers, our clients; it's our job to try and sell our subjects to you. (The downside of this competitive market model--"Why learn French? Spanish is cooler!"; "Forget Anthropology, Political Science is where the action is!"-- is a topic for another post.)

On the one hand, we trust that you will stake out and follow your own path. On the other, we are afraid to give up control completely--because we think we know better than you what you really need, or because we fear that without some coercion, some insistent prodding, you will avoid things that are difficult but necessary and good for you. "We know you hate math," we might say, "but you should take it anyway, for your own good." Or: "If you want to call yourself a sociologist, you have to read Weber and Durkheim. There's no way around it."

In a liberal arts college like Oberlin, the bureaucratic result of this tension between freedom and coercion is the cafeteria-style, food-group-based checklist that we call graduation requirements. One serving of vegetables (quantitative proficiency!), some whole-wheat carbs (9 credits in the social sciences, from at least two different departments!), not too much dessert (ExCo!), and so on.

There are two problems with this structure. First, it quickly becomes a goal in itself. Over time, students and advisors forget the underlying rationale (if they ever knew or understood it to begin with), and treat it only as a simple checklist, a series of hoops to jump through. This in turn leads to loophole behavior: people start substituting their green beans with ketchup.

We all realize that it's high time to revisit the whole blasted thing, and that's precisely what we've begun to do. It's daunting as anything--but absolutely essential.

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