Can Students Make Intelligent Choices?

In a recent opinion piece on general education requirements that appeared in the August 15 edition of The Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker opines:

Students given so many choices aren’t likely to select what’s good for them. Given human nature, they’ll choose what’s fun, easy or cool — and not early in the morning or on Fridays. It’s up to universities to guide them away from the dessert tray to the vegetable courses they need to develop healthy minds.

Regular readers of this blog will know that this sort of “students can’t think for themselves” view of general education drives me crazy. I agree with Parker’s larger point, which is that colleges and universities have a responsibility to expose undergraduate students to a wide variety of educational experiences. But, as I have argued over and over in this space, “exposure” means expecting students to sample courses in a variety of fields, not requiring specific courses (as we do here at George Mason).

Parker, like so many who love to write about how higher education isn’t serving the needs of our students, cherry picks an absurd example to make her point. The university she’s chosen to pick on is Emory and the course she’s chosen to wave around as proof of how ridiculous curriculum has become is one titled “Gynecology in the Ancient World” — which students can take to fulfill their “History, Society, and Culture” requirement.

Let’s take a minute and try to follow the argument she’s making here. First, colleges have an obligation to prepare their graduates for “the real world.” Second, curricula should force students to be prepared for that real world. Third, colleges are offering students too many choices, many of which (in Parker’s view) are ridiculous. Fourth, our college students are so immature and vacuous that they will choose courses like Gynecology in the Ancient World over something that will better prepare them for the real world.

Parker and all those who want to snipe at college students from a distance need to spend a little more time on campus. I have been teaching full time for 14 years and have been working in higher education steadily since 1983. In all those years I have taught or met thousands or students and with a few exceptions, they have all struck me as smart, serious, and pretty clear headed when it comes to how their education — with an emphasis on their (as opposed to their parents’) — will help them prepare for what comes after college.

As a counterweight to Parker’s waving around Gynecology in the Ancient World as evidence of how silly our students must be if they sign up for such a course, I offer the following corrective. This semester I’m teaching a course on the history of human trafficking in the 20th and 21st centuries. I challenge anyone to argue that understanding the historical context of one of the great tragedies of the world we live in is not important. We’re not going to be smiling much in this course, but we will learn about something too many Americans would prefer to pretend doesn’t exist — slavery all around us.

What do we learn about our supposedly immature and vacuous students from the enrollment in my course? When registration opened the course had 45 seats. Within four days I had 45 registrants and 10 on a waiting list. I added 15 more seats and within a few more days had 60 students registered and another 10 or so on a waiting list. Now I have 80 students registered and have been receiving emails from more who want in.

Does anyone think 80 undergraduates have registered for such a course because they think it will be fun?

I just wish commentators who denigrate our students’ abilities to make informed choices about their own education would stop bashing our students from a distance. Instead, I’d suggest that the student-bashers come join me in advising sessions each week (goodness knows I could use the help given the budget cuts we’ve absorbed lately). If they spent a few hours in my office with my students — real students, not imaginary ones — I’ll just bet their opinions would change.

One thought on “Can Students Make Intelligent Choices?

  1. Tom Scheinfeldt

    Great post, Mills. I’d also raise the possibility that—intentionally provocative title aside—Gynecology in the Ancient World may do a good job of teaching students about the “real world,” a world in which women’s reproductive concerns, debates about health care, and trans/gender issues often dominate our politics.

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