Column #3, posted 4/6/99

It Is Required

It was June 6, 1966 -- 6/6/66 -- perhaps the devil was watching graduation, too. My parents were there. Ralph's parents were there. And so were Arthur's. As the class marched down the aisle in the hot sun wearing dark robes, I waved to my parents and saw the frantic look on Arthur's parents' faces. Where was Arthur? Nowhere to be found. It was a very sad day for them. The party at their house was cancelled. There was nothing to celebrate.

No, this is not a story about insanity or violence -- except in a metaphorical sense. Arthur is alive and well today, doing fine by most of life's measures. What happened that day? Arthur was told that he would not graduate. He had been admitted to the MBA program at Columbia. He had a respectable B average in college. So, what had happened? Arthur had failed gym.

While his parents were hopelessly trying to find his face in the crowd, Arthur was trying to negotiate with the deans at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University). He was trying to convince them that he should graduate, that his life would be ruined, that this gym requirement was silly, that he was a superb athlete -- but none of this worked. What had happened? Arthur had simply blown off gym. He didn't show up. He found the jumping jacks boring and the attitude of the gym teachers tyrannical. Too bad then, no diploma.

This is a true story. That is the frightening part. Arthur did graduate, but it took two more years. He managed to get the officials at Carnegie Tech to accept some statement or other from the 92nd Street Y in New York. But he does not get invited to class reunions, since he is officially a member of the class of '68.

One of the main reasons that colleges set up requirements has to do with breadth. The idea is that the college doesn't want students to know only one subject well. The school has decided, and nearly every university agrees on this, that a student should know a little bit about a lot of different things. Of course there have been periods in various colleges' histories where these requirements have been reduced to "choose one course from column A and one from column B," but more typically these days, specific courses or specific areas of study are fixed by the college. The rational behind this is not always obvious. Quite often university politics is the real issue.

Is there a set of courses that every student should take? Is there stuff everyone should know? Does breadth matter? In order to answer this question I am tempted to tell one more story.

I attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a school that emphasized science and which required a test for admission. It was a very competitive place. But, this story is about gym, not science. Stuyvesant had a gym requirement, as do most high schools. We can wonder why there should be such a requirement, although no one would doubt the idea that being physically fit is a good thing. The issue is why such requirements are mixed up with ideas about educational achievement. In any case, I digress.

Stuyvesant was located in an old school building and it simply wasn't built to accommodate the number of students that it had. As a result it was impossible for each student to shower after gym class. Classes lasted for 45 minutes, the few showers that existed were very far from the gym lockers, so in order for everyone to shower after class, the class would have had to have been absurdly short. The powers that be worried about this, and so, for reasons I will never quite understand, they decided that every student would shower once a week. This shower was to be taken for one period of the five allotted in the week to gym. Or, to put this another way, showers lasted 45 minutes, and occurred say, every Friday.

As you might expect, students found this idea absurd, so they often skipped the shower period. The school found such behavior intolerable of course, so they set up a requirement that one had to "make up" any showers that were missed. What this meant in actuality was that some students were forced to shower for entire days and sometimes an entire week at the end of the year in order to graduate.

In telling this story I have found it to be so absurd that I have, at times thought my memory was failing. And then, in an unlikely place I found a cohort of mine from those days and he confirmed my story, much to the astonishment of our companions.

One of my students heard me tell this story and responded with one of her own:

In order to graduate high school, I had to pass "drown proofing". In other words we had to prove that we could float. Why? So we could survive in the ocean long enough for rescue crews to save us. I kid you not. I'm assuming the people who wrote this up were emotionally-scarred survivors of the Titanic.

They put great big rubber bands around our legs so we couldn't really kick, told us that we couldn't use our arms and hands to aid us, made us jump into a 12 ft deep diving pool, and "float" for 10 minutes - allowing us to lift our heads every so often to breath (well, they weren't barbarians).

Back then, I had little body fat, so I didn't float. I was an "A" student ...with very little body fat ...who was already accepted into Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc ...and I wasn't going to be able to graduate because I couldn't float. I finally got the head P.E. person to agree to let me use my toes to propel my body to the water's surface when I sank to the bottom of the pool (which happens 10 seconds after jumping in). He said that he would "unofficially" allow it. So that's what I did for 10 minutes. Sink for 10 seconds, do a big toe push, will myself to the water's surface, gasp, sink to the bottom (repeat for 10 minutes).

So, I guess this was ok because I learned that when I do get stranded in the middle of the ocean, all I have to do is sink for several hundred feet and do a big toe push to the water's surface....

What is one to make of all this? The first thing to see is that whatever requirements are established, even those with some rationale behind them, eventually get perverted in some way by circumstance. Because requirements get screwed up in this way, should we just forget the whole idea, or is there some right way to do this?

These various swimming requirements are actually quite interesting. High schools and colleges consistently err on the side of teaching subjects that have no real relevance to the future lives of students. Every high school requires geometry and algebra, yet it is hard to discern a reason why these subjects are likely to ever matter in the life of the average adult. Yet, school seems most absurd when we look at things like swimming requirements. My student couldn't graduate because she couldn't float? You have to be kidding. On the other hand, swimming might actually matter to an adult. Moreover, it is precisely the kind of "doing requirement" that makes sense. Students can actually learn to do it, will know when they have done it, and can continue to practice and therefore be able to do it the rest of their lives. Swimming is indeed worth learning. The real question is: What should schools be teaching? If we all agree on swimming, shouldn't we also require that all students learn to drive? This doesn't seem unreasonable after all. What about maintaining an effective relationship with another person? This is very important in adult life, so why don't we teach that?

The issue is really about two things. First, we have the question of what constitutes an academic subject, and second, we have the issue of a university's resistance to change.

So, what does constitute an academic subject? School is about academics; we have the sense that math is an academic subject and swimming isn't. That's why students remark on the absurdity of the swimming requirement.

What should be the province of any university? We have evolved a set of answers to this question that, as a culture, we all subscribe to. We believe that education is about science, humanities, and the arts. Inside universities we find Colleges of Arts and Sciences. These are usually the cornerstone of the university and typically predate the founding of other schools within the university. Many universities have engineering schools or drama schools or music schools or journalism schools. These are roughly grouped as "professional schools" and are looked down upon by those in the College of Arts and Sciences. Business schools, medical schools, and law schools are part of a modern university but are so looked down upon by the other schools that they typically do not teach undergraduates and their faculty are often made to feel that they are not really part of the university at all. (This doesn't mean that the university itself isn't proud of these schools. After all, if a university has a great medical school it will ballyhoo it when it can.) At my university the medical and law schools are located ten miles away from the main campus. This is not at all unusual. The other universities where I worked (Stanford and Yale) had similarly quite separate medical schools. Some state university systems put these schools in entirely different cities from the main campus.

There is a general ethos in any university that says that members of the professional schools are really not like the rest of the faculty since they are not really academics. They do stuff in the real world, they often get paid a great deal more money than other professors, they quite often don't have tenure, and they are not seen as really engaging in "pure" research.

The idea of pure research dominates the modern university. Those who engage in it are members of the elite ruling class. Those who do no research, either because their research careers are over or because their fields are not research oriented (true of most of the professional schools, although not the medical school typically), have little or no clout when it comes to things like setting requirements. This is why you will never see a required course at any university for undergraduates in law, medicine, journalism, music, business, or art. Those who set the requirements for what constitutes a liberal academic curriculum -- those who say what should go on in a college -- are simply not from those fields, the people from those fields never get to vote for their own subjects.

Now, if one thinks about this for a moment, one can see that this state of affairs is basically absurd. Many colleges require a mathematics course in order to graduate but none require a course in medicine or law. Most adults need to know something about basic medicine or law at many times in their lives while they somehow can muddle through without ever solving a quadratic equation. Clearly, the requirements are not about practical issues in daily life. They are about some person's notion of what people should learn, with little thought given to why they should know it.

Universities and colleges are also about structures that are immune to change. Let's for a moment consider the idea that any good university should require its students to take a year-long course in basic medicine that would supply them with knowledge that would be quite valuable in their lives. Many universities have some very impressive faculty members who could teach such a course. But, there are a few problems. Where are these people located? As mentioned previously, many reside in different locations from the students. At the University of Texas, the main campus is in Austin but the Medical School is in Dallas. At the University of California the main campuses are in Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and so on, but the Medical School is in San Francisco. Now, it is actually not surprising that the medical schools of these universities are far away from the undergraduates. Because medical schools are meant to be learn by doing institutions, they need hospitals, research labs, and other resources that require enormous campuses of their own. The kind of teaching at these schools is different, the lives of the faculty are different (since they are usually practicing physicians), and the connection between the medical school and the rest of the university is quite tenuous.

With so many obstacles, how could such a course get taught? Even if the right people could get to the right city, it would be difficult to provide the incentives for such teaching since the faculty of the medical school are busy enough as it is. The fact is that it would be darn near impossible to require such a course for every undergraduate, so no one in their right mind would suggest such a thing. It hardly matters if it would be a good thing or not.

So, when we assume that a college education is about academic subjects we must recognize that we believe this to be so because it has always been so and because the infrastructure we have created tends to preserve the status quo. There are alternative colleges, though, ones which emphasize much more practical curricula. The problem is that these schools are perceived as being second rate, and in fact, it is true that the best minds in the country do not teach at them and the best students in the country do not attend them. This does not mean however that the curriculum in the schools that the best and the brightest do teach at and attend is in any sense right or reasonable.

Practical education is seen as vocational in nature and the vocational schools have always been seen as being for the less talented students. The best students go to more academically oriented schools, but the problem is that the curriculum of these schools is determined by academics. As we have seen, academics may not be the best people to determine what a student should learn. Yet, oddly there is no national debate about this. Instead we talk about class size, teachers' salaries, and test scores. We are all so damn sure that everyone should know whatever it is that those academics employed by the best universities want to teach. It is a vicious cycle.

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