It's the end of the semester here in Fort Smith, and I am grading and grading, looking back and looking forward.
We've just gone through a major revision of our degree program at my small working-class university. Some parts of the changes we made leave me optimistic -- we have a number of new upper level classes, like the Women's Lit class I'll be teaching in the Spring, and the Cultural Studies class two of my colleagues teach every semester to incoming majors; we have a required class in Grammar and Junior Seminars in British and American Lit.
All of this is very cool. On the other hand, under directive from the State Legislature, we've dropped the number of hours in the degree from 124 to 120.
Okay, big deal, four hours. (For a much worse idea, see here.) We eliminated four hours of electives, which may not seem like much of an issue. It's that notion, though, that worries me. It's the idea that the State Legislature seems to have that a university education is (mostly) a waste of time. That those four hours of electives taught our students nothing and thus could be cut without any loss.
I think back to my own undergraduate days, and the elective classes I took -- mainly in my senior year, since like a good student I followed my prescribed track zealously. (Heh.) My senior year (okay, my second senior year, I'll come clean -- I switched majors so often I ended up doing six years as an undergrad and had two junior and two senior years) was almost entirely electives.
I took Biology and Biology Lab. (Not required for my major.) I took a class in 18th Century Enlightenment Poets. I took a class in Political Geography. I took Second Year Greek (both semesters). All of these classes taught me things I have used to this day, endlessly. In some ways, I'm a professor and writer because of those classes -- certainly the writer I am because of those classes.
And yes, the six years instead of the four years I spent as an undergraduate made me the writer and the professor I am. If I hadn't been an anthropology major before I was an English major, I would not be teaching and writing, thinking and researching the way I am now.
The idea that the purpose of a university degree is to get students jobs is ridiculous. We bring them to the campus to educate them -- to teach them what they don't yet know they need to know, to show them a world they don't know exists. That takes time. Lots of it. It means they have to spend more hours, not fewer, in the classroom, and with each other, and on their own, reading and lying about -- I can't tell you how much I learned lying on my back in the courtyard of the English Building at my university, reading and staring up at the sky.
Trying to make this some swift process, so we can make good technocrats out of them, well.
What a bad plan.