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’.


  1. 19 year olds being hotter?
    Maybe Post Preppy fashion from a box national retail chain like the GAP (circa YOUR college years), or grunge inspired mom jeans and flannel (circa MY college years) isn't nearly as enticing to the male psyche as today's Victoria Secret/Girls Gone Wild inspired fashion and culture...

    As for the article itself, interesting to dissect the requirements.
    I would be curious to see the SHAM classes that could constitute as course requirements. FOr instance- I took "Sports and Leisure in Ancient Rome" and "History of University of Michigan" to satisfy an art and History requirement respectively...

    In terms of a college education/course requirements overview, Journalism as a major is more vocational than MOST college majors. So your choice is dissecting this model has less room to scoff (with save Diversity requirements) than most...

    What do i know?! I studied HUMANITIES with emphasis on Art History, and now i sell comic books and promote comic conventions for a living...

  2. As a scholar and an educator and perhaps someone who could be on your list of “non-ranked list of The 10 Smartest People in Our Culture”, I felt compelled to reply. A couple of points to emphasis:

    Re: Basic Skills Requirement, Critical Thinking:
    What you said is true, but what is even more so needed is the ability to extrapolate the data and apply it elsewhere. There is nothing worse than in a group lecture where the only thought the student brings is agreeing with the reading material.

    Re: Mathematics, Natural Sciences, other:
    These courses ARE for the well round aspect, which is very much needed. I remember a journalist in DC that was doing a consumer report expose’ on Cell Phones back in the day. I forget the story (it had to do with their claim in range) but the punchline was she in the middle of a construction site surrounded by tons of metal wondering why the cell phone did work. The construction site had nothing to do with the story, it was simply where she ended up in her range test (there is construction all around DC), but she then claimed a range failure. Had she taken Physic 101 she would have been aware that the surrounding metals were interfering with the signal and not have came off looking like a fool.

    Many of her exposes were flawed in this manner (in one, she did not understand that the density of ice is different than the density of water, that’s why ice floats.) She did not last long as a journalist.

    These comments are meant to expounds the same argument that you Ok-ed in Arts and Humanities and Social Science, noting that well rounded means more than just well-rounded; it is the ability to understand the basics so that your story is better, whether it be journalistic or policymaking or marketing (e.g., the Nova car did not sell well because it means No-Go in Spanish - how better had the marketing major known that?).

    Academia should be about teaching how to think and apply in several different categories - regardless of major. Best examine question I ever heard was – compare and contrast Karl Marx and Charles Darwin. How cool a question is that?

  3. Hey Jim! Good on ya for taking journo classes. I fondly remember my days in that program and also imagined you'd done it the first time around.

    You must have majored in Baseball and Bein' Cool back then. ;)

    christina Z.

  4. Comparative Cultural Studies/Gender, Race, Class, Ethnicity Studies and Foreign Language aren't "political correctness" - they are preparation for having a Chinese boss.
    And being the nerd that I am, I can help but wonder if those classes don't dovetail nicely with some of the Natural Sciences classes that you took. I mean, who knows how the baking powder volcano has changed our culture?!?

  5. 19 year olds look better now? i guess i shouldnt take hot chicks at csun for granted.