Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Value INSIDE a College Education

Two MAJOR things have changed since the first time I went to college (circa 1986-88) and the current (2009-present):

1) 19-year-old women look better; and
2) The Degree Progress Report, or DPR.

Damn, I love the DPR. All due respect to you 19-year-old ladies, but the DPR kicks ass. It’s a simple, easy-to-follow, hyper-detailed list-out of all the classes you’ve taken, and more importantly, just which requirements they fill as you matriculate through university. Which caused me to ponder…

Just what are these requirements? What do they mean? Why are they important? Or not? Is it a measure of general knowledge? Specific? Something to keep a chair warmed for a tenured professor at a diploma mill? What, huh, what?

So whereas there have already been 153,000 articles about the value of a college education and how it might affect your earning power down the road, here’s one about the value inside a college education—what you might be getting out of it, knowledge-wise. And stuff.

Please be advised, these are the requirements for a Journalism major at California State University, Northridge. I assume it’s the same throughout the Cal State system—someone at Fresno, please put up your hand and tell me if that’s so.

(And for the nosy peeps among you, my cumulative GPA thus far: 3.15. Could be worse, I guess.)

Away we go.

• Basic Skills Requirement, Analytical Reading and Expository Writing (need 3 credits): Makes sense I guess, and a good use of three credits. You gotta read and write, right?

• Basic Skills Requirement, Critical Thinking (need 3 credits): Take it from an old fart, this is a new one. And it seems to be a point of emphasis. They wanna teach you how to detect you’re being brainwashed by Fox News before you forget everything you learned and actually get brainwashed by Fox News. I took a Philosophy course called Logic in Practice. I liked it. And again, it seemed a good expenditure of three credits—just remember!

• Basic Skills Requirement, Mathematics (need 3 credits): Okay. I guess Cal State is interested in making sure you can balance a checkbook. Three credits = fine in my book.

• Basic Skills Requirement, Oral Communication (need 3 credits): Again, relatively new. Back in ye caveman days, university didn’t care if you could speak, only if you could club a wooly mammoth. This is okay (tho’ it looks like I wasted three credits on Mammoth-Clubbing 110 back in the day).

• Natural Sciences Requirement (need 8 credits, 2 of which must be lab): This one’s gonna stick in my craw, as it looks like I have to dig out a University of Minnesota-Duluth syllabus from Ideas in Chemistry, ’87. I think I had a lab as part of that. Anyhoo, I’ll be frank: Unless you’re going into the hard sciences, ANY damn lab you’re taking with these classes has all the functionality, practical application, and difficulty level of something you’ll see on a two-minute bumper on PBS. Seriously, do the baking powder volcano with a six-year-old, and you’re cool.

I get that a scientific background is important and maybe some hands-on is cool, but this is splitting hairs. Really. You’ll get more out of a 45-minute Home Depot Do-it-Yourself workshop than you will out of a Physics 101 lab. Honestly. I wouldn’t mind taking two credits in woodshop instead. This is a minor waste.

• Arts and Humanities Requirement (need 7 credits): Humanities. Jazz Studies. Philosophy. Etcetera. Goes towards that wonderful “making you a more well-rounded person.” Okay.

• Social Science Requirement (need 7 credits): Geography. Politics. Government. Knowledge of the world around you and its institutions. Okay.

• Lifelong Learning Requirement (need 3 credits): Something where you build a framework, and it stays with you throughout life. I took Business Ethics. Criminey, three credits here seems too few. I mean, when I’m 64, what am I gonna need more? An ethical framework with which to conduct my life, or the fact that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.80 meters/second squared? Here’s one where they could err on the side of adding.

Now take a deep breath for…

• Comparative Cultural Studies/Gender, Race, Class, Ethnicity Studies and Foreign Language (need 9 credits): Put more callously, “Nine credits of political correctness.” Put more optimistically, “Nine credits of understanding that you’re not the center of the universe, and building empathy for others.”

Okay, maybe it’s because I’m 42 creaking years old and have some wear on my moccasins, but I think the last thing I need at this stage of my life is nine credits of “getting” that there are people on Earth other than 42-creaking-years-old fat drunken Micks like me. Then again, maybe if they had “Irish Drinking and Fist-Fighting 101” I could take for three credits, I’d be happier. I would totally ace that class.

Other side of the coin: Yeah, if you’re a freshly scrubbed 18-year-old just off the bus from Pampered Second-Tier Suburb, USA, you might need more understanding of these topics than you get on the wash tag of a G-Unit hoodie.

Regardless, my gut does tell me this is a tad overkillish, and a small evidence of the institutionalized political correctness that I think most would agree permeates academia. Can we just agree on six credits, please? Or, here’s a couple cool/radical ideas:

Radical Idea the First: If you’ve lived in L.A., Noo Yawk, Miami, Dallas, or any other similarly cosmopolitan and (Oh, cripes! WARNING: Politically correct term ahead!) “ethnically diverse” community for at least five years, you get an automatic three credits. SERIOUSLY, don’t we agree that one walking trip down a four-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard will teach you more than African-American Studies 101? Really. I think so.

Radical Idea the Second: Or if you are Mr./Ms. freshly scrubbed 18-year-old just off the bus from Pampered Second-Tier Suburb, USA, you get three auto-credits if you take one quarter’s night classes at L.A.’s Locke, Crenshaw, Garfield or Roosevelt High Schools. Hell, throw in Venice. I like Venice. Again, I truly believe this will teach you more than Fill-In-The-Ethnicity 101.

• General Education Upper Division (need 9 credits): Pretty much anything, but higher level classes. Can also be used to fill other requirements. I’m okay with it.

• Basic Skills Information Competence (need 3 credits): Not sure what this means, but looks like my Oral Communication took care of this, too. Yay, me.

• Subject Explorations Information Competence (need 3 credits): I think this is the upper-division version of immediate above.

• Title 5 American History and Government (need 3 credits EACH in American History, Institutions and Ideals; U.S. Constitution; and California State and Local Government): So nine credits total so you get how gub’ment works, three of those state-focused. Seems okay.

• Upper and Lower Division Writing Requirements: Two times, a Saturday-morning one-off test kinda thing. Eh. Seems to me you’re kinda doing that in every last class you take. But someone’s gotta keep the Proctor’s Union happy.

• 37 Credits in my Major (Journalism): Well, of 120 total, I guess that kinda makes sense. It’s a specialized program, as any major quote-unquote “should be,” right?

(And kudos here to the Cal State system, as I may have both roasted a pound of their flesh up above, AND I believe this to be true: I applaud you for the undergrad Journalism major. Most schools have it only as a Graduate program, and kinda sub in a catch-all “Communications” major that kinda-sorta encompasses journalism. I appreciate that you go the extra mile into a J-school program.)

So what have we learned today? Well, that 19-year-olds somehow got hotter. That the DPR is our friend. And that there are lotsa little cubby-holes inside that 120-credit Big Burrito called “diploma.”

On the measure, I’m surprised to see that Academia Assembled does a half-ass decent job of categorizing out stuff that “matters.” I daresay if you were to give me the proverbial Blank Sheet o’ Paper and ask me to design McLauchlin U (home of the Fightin’ Drunk Micks!), I’d likely arrive at about 80% of what my DPR shows. A tweak here, a tweak there…but all in all, it’s pretty good.

Now will someone from my old Ideas in Chemistry class please send me a copy of that Spring, 1987 syllabus?

Jim McLauchlin

Next: I dunno. Sumpthin’.