Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Against Concentrations

I have been puzzling about how Harvard could get resolve the big problems in undergraduate education. I have a modest proposal.

Of course, the first step is to define what problem, or problems, you are trying to solve. Here are a few.

1) Students are too grade-conscious. This drives them to make anti-educational decisions, taking courses that are graded softly or don't teach them much they don't already know, rather than taking courses they might learn from.

2) Honors, being based largely on grades, reward conservative course choices and punish risk taking. They are also enormously socioeconomically biased, since the people who get good grades on average over four years are the people who were already very well educated before they arrived at Harvard. (I have never seen data on that, but I would love to see a scatterplot of high and highest honors, or GPA, against family income. I'd guess that most of the outliers, the students with low incomes and high GPAs, came from independent schools with aggressive financial aid policies.)

3) Declaring a concentration is seen as a moment of truth, a crisis in identity formation, no matter how much we preach that it's what you know rather than what credential you bear that will determine your future success.

4) The Humanities are terrified that they are not attracting enough enrollments or enough concentrators.

5) The General Education program, a source of pride in theory, is treated with some derision by more talented students, and as game of hopscotch, with some excellent courses and a lot of strange ones, by the bulk of students.

6) We are losing our identity as a liberal arts institution because so many students are concentrating in Engineering and Computer Science.

Pardon a somewhat lengthy digression here. I think #6, though widely bruited, is nonsense, because as far as I am concerned applied science is perfectly consistent with liberal education. The notion that a liberal education is one divorced from utility -- learning for learning's sake, as we like to say -- is a crock. It is just an etymological confusion, where "art" is construed as something other than "science" and "liberal" is taken to mean free from utility.

The liberal arts are neither useless nor artistic. They are called "liberal" because they were the arts taught to the free people of the Roman republic, the citizens as opposed to slaves. They were the arts of citizenship. And of course they included mathematics, since that was among the skills, the useful arts, that Roman citizens were expected to have to take responsibility for their nation. And while I am at it, and while we are still buzzing about the naming of the School of Public Health in honor of the Chans, I have always wondered why the School of Engineering is not already named for Gordon McKay and described properly as a "School of Art." After all, McKay's will is quite explicit:

I am sure there is a good reason; I haven't fought my way through all the codicils. The point is, the campaigning for the Liberal Arts is not just about the Humanities. It is equally about techne.

But back to educational reform. Here is a proposal to deal with all these issues.

I hate "secondaries," what Harvard calls minors. As presently constituted, hey seem to bring out the worst inclinations of Harvard students, their tendency to seek credentials rather than learning. I think students would do less of that if left to their own devices -- but we actually incentivize them to seek secondaries and guts that will raise their GPAs rather than studying the things they would most like to learn. We do this by giving them gold stars for secondaries and giving them honors for GPA, at the same time as we disdain the inevitable consequences of rewarding these things and not others -- students too busy and too competitive to stop and think about who they are and where they are going.

But what if there were ONLY secondaries? Get rid of concentrations. Have departments, and interdepartmental committees, offer "secondaries," and require students to earn at least two, but allow students to earn several. (Of course "secondary" is no longer the right term if there are no concentrations. I'll use it just to convey the idea of a small cluster of courses with some disciplinary coherence and a bit of depth.)

Now that defining moment -- am I going to be an English major or a Computer Science major? -- disappears. You have to be more than one thing, or you don't get a degree.

Well, of course there are damned good reasons why we wouldn't simply do this. We think you are not well educated if you don't know something in depth. We want to produce top scholars too, and that required incentivizing, if not requiring, undergraduates to work at an advanced scholarly level.

Though frankly, we are pretty unclear about the purpose of concentrations. We react with mock horror when students overspecialize, even if they have satisfied all their Gen Ed requirements. We actually reduced the maximum size of concentrations a few years ago; they are not supposed to be mini-PhDs, was the battle cry. But of course the top students are always the ones who do the most advanced disciplinary work. Those are the ones who graduate summa.

So how do we incentivize a deeper education, and the engagement of students in advanced scholarship and research, while not requiring every graduate to have a concentration?

Well, first of all, having two or three secondaries, say in CS and biochemistry, might be more of an intellectual investment in the future than having a concentration in one or the other. Lots of fields are evolving out of the friction between existing disciplines. A few courses in each of CS and sociology might have been perfect for Zuckerberg.

And secondly, we could incentivize depth by basing honors mostly on senior theses. A department might well decide that the "secondary," which would require only a few courses, was not nearly preparation enough to write a thesis; to be eligible for that you would need several more courses, with some specificity about which courses. When it came time to award honors a department or committee could look at the entire program and give some weight to GPA, but the idea would be to judge people on the depth of their knowledge, as evidenced in part by the quality of the thesis they were able to write. Honors would become more subjective, but also less consequential.

I'll bet we'd get more humanities enrollments if people felt that they did not have to assume the identity of a humanist. Of course, the humanities courses would still have to win in the marketplace of ideas. But there would be less eye-rolling, by parents and peers, when a student announced that one of her secondaries was in English if another were in something more "useful." We could credibly argue, as we cannot today, that the ideal graduate really is broadly educated. (The CS concentrator who does as instructed, and takes one Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding course, one Culture and Belief Course, and one Ethical Reasoning course, may well not wind up with a credibly liberal education, but if she had a secondary in Philosophy or the Classics, I bet she would.)

And by limiting the size of secondaries, we would make more credible that what makes you liberally educated is not what the scholars in your department think of your academic expertise, it is your facility with thinking and reasoning and analysis and argumentation and presenting well considered solutions to actual problems of the world in all their complexity. Of course those would be rooted in the academic traditions of the disciplines. Educated people are expected to bring the full arsenal of their learning to bear on their problems they confront. Our education would get linked back to our civic purposes, without some childish required civics curriculum.

Now I'd love to know what's wrong with this idea. One thing that is possibly "wrong" with it is that it would end some of the risible cries of "turf warfare." In the politics of higher education, turf warfare is advantageous to those losing the battles, as it is a way to call for the battleground to be leveled artificially, for a shift in resources to make it a fair fight. If we simply acknowledged that the curriculum is largely elective and let students take the subjects in which they were interested -- within the parameters of the regulated marketplace I have argued for -- we would all have a greater incentive to meet students' needs rather than complain about the unfairness of the fight in which we are engaged.


  1. It's my impression that employers do not look at transcripts with much depth. They will look at the major and GPA, if that. If students could not summarize their record in a simple sentence such as "I earned a 3.8 as an econ major at Harvard", that could disadvantage them. Professor Lewis probably wishes employers and graduate school admissions committees were more thoughtful in judging applicants, but I wonder if they are.

  2. There are probably plenty of better arguments against this idea before you get to this one! You are certainly right about the superficial screening, but in one sense I think you are underestimating the savvy of the recruiters: by now they know that saying you have a "3.8 in economics at Harvard" tells them almost nothing, except that four years ago you were promising enough to get into Harvard! The situation in CS is probably extreme, but CS recruiters don't care at all about transcripts or GPAs, they just want to figure out what you know, so the interviews are problem solving sessions.

    My revised proposal on thinking about it: Everyone has to have three 5-course minors, one each in an area of Nat Sci, of Soc Sci, and of Hum. To have a "concentration" and be eligible for honors, which as now would go to ad most half the class, you'd have to do more in one area and write a thesis or do some other capstone project, and be recommended by a department or committee, but not based mostly on GPA. There would still be plenty of room for writing, language, and elective courses.

    I thought I'd never say it, but kill Gen Ed. There are too many bypasses already, and the remaining courses include too many that are weird in ways that make them poor evidence of general education. With a proper minor in an area distant from your main interest, you'd have to develop a bit of sophistication about thinking in another area. Put the resources into making sure departments took seriously their responsibility to create departmental courses appropriate for all students.

    1. You'd be interested to hear that the idea of using an out-of-division secondary to replace Gen Ed came up at last night's Gen Ed "Town Hall" in Eliot (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/10/2/gened-first-meeting-confusion/, though the Crimson, uselessly enough, chose to refrain from citing any of the ideas aired, and stuck to soundbites instead).

      I do think the idea of concentration as a thing you choose *to do*, and not a thing you choose *one of* from a list is more liberal [arts education] than "a little of everything, and one thing well".

  3. I very much like the idea of someone getting a secondary in Art History because they like it not causing their parents to shudder in fear of the job market.

    I also like that it avoids the following absurdity I have seen: Gee, I am majoring in CS and if I just take 3 more math courses, I can get a math major-- even though I don't like math and aren't that good at it. That is, the
    `all I need is x courses for a major so I'll grit my teeth and get it' would go away.

    One caution- if the three are in (say) Math/CS/Physics that seems to defeat the purpose.Same with Bio/Biochem/Entomology (they are diff depts are my school. Really!). Requiring that at least one be a science and at least one be a humanity might be okay. And might help battle what CP Snow lametnted as the two cultures-- that people in the humanities brag that they don't know any math.

    Would this work at other schools? Lets try it at Harvard first :-) But,
    having brought it up, Harvard has people who are good at many things. But other schools may be able to live up to the challenge. And the list of problems you wrote down are certainly not unique to Harvard.

    1. Boy, do I know that "I need only X more courses that I don't want to take to get this gold star" conversation. I try to use it focus students on whether they want an education or just credentials.

  4. Professor Lewis,
    Harvard has never tried to demonstrate that it provides a better education than many other cheaper schools, including state schools. A big reason lots of students and their parents are willing to pay $65K per year is to get a Harvard credential. When you charge an exorbitant amount and continually increase that amount faster than inflation, don't be surprised if your buyers think in mercenary terms.

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