The Weakness of Many College Courses Today

Many courses in the humanities and social sciences are offered in a particular way that does far less to educate students. Let me begin with a humorous illustration that I intend to be a perfect analogy.  Let’s assume students signed up for “America, The War Years: 1861 – 1865.” The first day of class the professor says “you’ve probably heard the war referred to as the Civil War. That’s what the lesser–educated call it.  You are blessed now to be on this campus and receive higher education. You will find that many things you have learned are not quite right or are blatantly wrong. Once you have your degree, you will know better than all of them and you will be one of the truly educated, ready to lead our society to a better state. So, let’s begin your higher education, and I will tell you that this is actually the war of northern aggression. You may have heard that this war was about slavery, but that wasn’t the real reason. The war was really about whether states have the right to determine their own laws, or have to live under the tyranny of a despotic federal government. Abraham Lincoln was, perhaps, the most illegitimate president in this country’s history. He stripped individuals of their rights by suspending the writ of habeas corpus. He was a ruthless military leader, allowing generals not just to defeat the South but to loot, burn, and desecrate it. He absconded with rights that had always belonged to the legislative branch.”

Then, along comes the first test. Question 1.  What was the primary reason for the war of northern aggression? After the test, a student who answered “slavery” speaks with the professor. “Professor, don’t you think slavery is an acceptable answer too?” Professor: “No.  Were you in class the week of September 10? I lectured very clearly on that subject that week.  Please pay better attention in class so that you will get more answers correct next time.”

Then, a writing assignment – Compare the leadership of Abraham Lincoln and Josef Stalin.  A student who also includes a “contrast” section, which is actually longer than the “compare” section, gets a low grade on the paper. This student speaks after class to the professor. Student: “Professor, don’t you think there were some really good leadership characteristics about Abraham Lincoln?” Professor: “There are a few, but there are vastly more poor characteristics.  I’m sure you learned some good ones, such as honesty, as a child, but now you have the complete picture. You have to demonstrate through your papers and tests that you have truly mastered the content of the course.”

Some time in our past, this course may have actually been taught this way.  Today, though the primary perspectives taught are gender–identity, socialist/Marxist, racial identity, etc.

I submit that this approach to learning falls far short of what an education could provide. No doubt, any time we have a perspective broadened, it can be exhilarating as we experience a-ha moments. Realizing that men interrupt women in a conversation more often than vice versa puts women at a disadvantage is a “wow” moment for men (and, often, for women). Learning that blacks have a harder time than whites hailing a cab in New York City is an eye-popping realization. Perspective broadening is one important element of education, but it is probably the only one learned through this teaching approach.

Nearly every university today has an emphasis on “critical thinking,” which is absent from this course. No papers are assigned that invite students to do any meaningful contrasting. When an ideology is taught, there is little critical thinking. The teacher is simply conveying that ideology and assessing students on how well they have received it.

In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll write more about how college courses should be taught to truly provide higher education.

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