Choosing a College 1

My daughter, known as A or 16, is beginning her college search. This is the first of several posts on how to choose a college. I do not want to make A’s decision for her, I simply want to share one insider’s perspective and stimulate her thinking.

Suggestion one: compare and contrast general education programs and choose a school with a thematic, interdisciplinary oriented general education program. Ask yourself, “Is the logic of the general education program self apparent and engaging?” And ask people at the college, “Does the sum of the general education sequence equal more than the individual parts?”

Five, six winters ago, two friends and I headed to a telemarking ski clinic. Free the heel, free the mind.

Friend one is a doc, a general practitioner. Friend two is a scientist who leads Washington State’s response team whenever there’s an oil spill or other type of accident that has serious ecological consequences. His team works with the groups responsible for the accident to restore the damaged area to it’s original state.

On the way home, One reflected on the limits of his medical education. Specifically, he wish he had learned how to run a business since that had proven to be the most difficult aspect of creating a thriving clinic. Two regretted being dependent upon an anthropologist who helped his team interact more thoughtfully with native groups every time their land was threatened by oil spills and other accidents. He wished there had been a little anthropology somewhere within his doctoral science program.

Now I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret. Some of my colleagues, let’s call them the “militant liberal artists” believe strongly that academics must reject any and all references to business model thinking. If you were to ask them, doesn’t a faculty that charges $100 to $200k for four years have some responsibility to equip graduates with skills that will enable them to earn a livable wage, they’d say, not really.  They’d point out that the economy is in constant flux and the purpose of a liberal education is to think deeply about the human condition, to question the status quo, to develop self understanding, to self actualize. Let the job market take care of itself and let technical colleges focus on marketable skills.

Economics department and business school faculty tend to think very differently about the purposes of higher education which can make for depressing faculty meetings. The business model folks, let’s call them “the utilitarians”, tend to think about higher education as an investment that should pay tangible dividends including a good job, health care, and material well being.

One philosopher of ed captures the different orientations of the “militant liberal artists” and the “utilitarians” by distinguishing between “education for being” and “education for having.” Getting faculty with wildly contrasting orientations to agree on general education requirements is exceedingly difficult because the MLA’s (pun intended) believe literature, art, music, religion, history, philosophy, and languages are most important while the U’s emphasize math, the sciences, economics, and business.

In large part, that philosophical divide explains why so many general education programs lack coherence and fail to inspire. Most people don’t understand that they are compromises. Keep some modicum of faculty peace, take one of these, two of those, and one of these. Students mindlessly check off each requirement as they go and the sum rarely equals more than the parts.

When it comes to undergraduate education, I’m more MLA in orientation; when it comes to graduate education, I’m more sympathetic to the U’s.  

A higher education is not a mutual fund; consequently, I’m not terribly concerned with whether undergraduate students and their families feel they receive an adequate monetary return for their investment. In my view, the more important question is whether graduates have sufficient interdisciplinary knowledge, skills, and sensibilities to make a positive difference in their communities. 

What would happen if the MLA’s and the U’s made nice and designed a general education program in response to One’s and Two’s questions: How does one provide quality medical care in an economically viable way? And how does one protect ecologically sensitive environments in culturally sensitive ways? The answer to one is by melding science and business, and to two, by melding science, humanities, and social science content.

The gen ed status quo requires students to take eight separate requirements in five, six different areas, but in those programs faculty typically don’t even read one another’s syllabi so students are left to themselves to connect dots between courses.

So A, if your goal is to graduate with the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities to improve the actual quality of life of people, seek a school with a thoughtfully designed, engaging, thematic, interdisciplinary general education program.

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3 thoughts on “Choosing a College 1

  1. Interesting…we’re doing a lot of talking about general education where I work, and in fact I sent my faculty listserv a link to your blog (we’ll see if they are interested enough in more reading to drive up your traffic at all!) I agree with your general take on this, but it’s hard to get faculty to coordinate, especially when it involves everything from turf wars to changing what one is used to doing. I’ve found that academics, so progressive in their politics, are often quite conservative when it comes to academia.

  2. On our 5-school college tour last week most of the schools were ranked in the same class: UConn, UVM, Syracuse and BU. One small school just north of Boston, Endicott, stands out despite being a “safety” type of school for my son. It requires ALL students to participate in at least THREE internships, with the first one the January of the freshman year. This, they say, helps students know early if they really are truly interested in the major they have in mind. The fall term of the senior year is a full time internship followed by a Capstone report the spring term. I think this small school (student body is about 2,300) has the right idea to fully get each student involved in the movement to becoming a working contributing member of society.

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