Friday, October 22, 2004

Was the Reformation Launched in a Privy? 

A recent discovery of a privy in an annex to Martin Luther's house in Wittenberg has led to some rather exaggerated claims about his religious ideas being worked out as he battled constipation. Still, it's a good read.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Gauging High-School Students' Readiness for College 

I'm reproducing in its entirety the following article from today's Chronicle of Higher Education. It seems to show that the vast majority of students are woefully inadequately prepared for university level English. The statistics, however, need some interpretation. What proportion of the 88% of students considered "not proficient" in English (the academic subject) are actually not proficient in England (the language) because it is not their native language? This must be taken into account in judging the effectiveness of the school system. From the other sid of the coin, the university's perspective, what proportion of these students are we seeing? Are 88% of our students "not proficient"? Or, at least, were they "not proficient" when they started their university careers? Probably that percentage should be lowered. The question is, by how much?

Cal State Releases First Results in Program to Gauge High-School Students' Readiness for College


The results are in from the first year of a new California testing program that is designed to help high-school juniors learn how they can better prepare for college, and the findings, released on Wednesday, show that many students have more work to do to become proficient in mathematics and English.

Of the more than 115,000 students who opted to take the math portion of the program's test last spring, 55 percent scored high enough to be declared ready for college-level courses at California State University. Of the more than 150,000 who took the English portion, only 22 percent were classified as being prepared.

In all, nearly 40 percent of the state's 385,000 high-school juniors chose to take part in the Early Assessment Program, which its creators say is the first of its kind in the nation.

High-school juniors decide whether to participate in the program when they take California's mandatory standardized test, to which optional questions for the Early Assessment Program are attached. Students who want to learn whether they are ready for college-level work must complete 15 multiple-choice questions for math and 15 multiple-choice questions and an essay for English.

Cal State administrators, faculty members, and trustees developed the Early Assessment Program, in collaboration with public-school and other state education officials, so that students could gain information about their level of preparedness for college when they still have time to improve their skills in high school.

University and state leaders hope that the program will prod high schools to increase the rigor of their courses and reduce the number of students who show up for college needing remedial help. That goal is especially important as the state's public colleges and universities struggle with how to handle a huge influx of new students over the next two decades.

More than half of first-time freshmen entering Cal State now need extra academic preparation in at least one subject, university officials said. The university aims to slash the percentage of freshmen who must take remedial courses to 10 percent by 2007.

David S. Spence, Cal State's executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer, said that giving students an early signal about their readiness for college amounted to a "fairness issue for students."

He also said that the results of the tests were about what university officials expected for the first year of the program. He believes the scores will improve in each successive year.

Jack O'Connell, California's superintendent of public instruction, added that the findings confirm the need to continue to improve the state's public high schools.

"The Early Assessment Program is an enormous step to better preparing our students," Mr. O'Connell said. "I believe the senior year in high school will become much more productive."

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Surgery in Late Anglo-Saxon England 

The BBC report new evidence of the use of advanced surgical techniques in late Anglo-Saxon England. The article contains some speculation about the circumstances in which it took place (whom the surgery was done to and whom it was done by), and my impression is that it is just that--speculation. Still, an interesting read (and there's even a video version!).

I'll be away from my desk for the next two days, so more thoughts on core curriculum ideal will have to wait until then.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Continuing Discussion of Liberal Education 

The nature of liberal educations seems to be a recurring theme in my thoughts and those of others at the moment. The latest is a discussion of the relative merits of the core curriculum and distribution requirements models of general education in The Chronicle of Higher Education. By coincidence, my university is in the process of re-designing its general education programme, very much on the distribution requirements model. If you dare, follow this link to see the models currently proposed, though I warn readers that I found them largely incomprehensible (which is probably not a good sign).

I think I want to discuss this issue in depth and include some basic definitions, which will take me a while to put together. So tune into this space for more in the coming days.

OK, here's a summary of Barry Latzer's article in the Chronicle:

Barry Latzer writes: “Several months ago a committee of the Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty recommended changes in the university's core curriculum, the required courses outside the students' specialization. Although the committee proposed new, multidisciplinary core courses, it also recommended the standard distribution approach to general education, which allows students freedom to select from a distribution of courses in five or six areas.” Latzer points out that “despite the popularity of the distribution model and Harvard's apparent endorsement, I've heard no fully persuasive argument in its defense. Moreover, a core curriculum provides certain marked advantages.” He continues:

Under the traditional core system the faculty designates the general-education courses in which the student must enroll. Over the years, by consensus, that has been subject to two limits: first, that the core courses would be relatively few in number, and second, that they would be general in scope. The result is a curriculum consisting of a small number of broad-based courses, like "Great Works of Philosophy" or "Landmarks of Literature"--courses that embrace the central knowledge and skills areas that the faculty deems important.


The typical distribution system requires the student to select a few courses in each of the following areas: physical and biological sciences, humanities, social sciences, writing skills, mathematics skills, and multicultural studies. The student is free to choose his or her courses from lists for each area. The trend has been to expand those lists almost without limit as faculty members press to have their favorite courses included and students seek greater and greater choice.…

Virtually unbridled student choice is not, however, a persuasive rationale for a general curriculum. It means that some, if not most, students will be deprived of the common core of knowledge typically expected of a liberal-arts education, thus risking the loss of what one might call a "cultural heritage." It ensures that students will study no common course work; they will have merely a set of exposures to broad fields. Worse, it invites trendy, esoteric, and even dubious offerings, courses ill suited to a sound general education.

In some cases, it has been possible for students to fulfill requirements by taking courses with dubious claims to belong to the distribution category. For instance, Latzer cites a “Living Religions of the East” course which fulfills a requirement in “Historical Perspectives” at the University of Iowa. Although one can see how such a course might be historically oriented—in spite of the title—one can also see how easily such categories can be abused. Equally, Latzer points out that under the distribution model, it is easier for students to fulfill requirements by taking courses that are so narrow that they lack the “depth and gravitas desirable for the students’ exposure to the humanities.” (He cites a number of pop culture-oriented courses, which I won’t copy here. Without getting into debates about high and low culture, I want to acknowledge the potential kind of abuse he describes but not attach that abuse to specific subject matters.) Latzer continues:

Leaving students free to choose courses without guidance from the faculty invites selection on the basis of superficialities, convenience, and mere whim. The result is a trivialization of general education to the point where the claims of the college catalogs--like Princeton's statement that its requirements "transcend the boundaries of specialization and provide all students with a common language and common skills"--simply cannot be taken seriously.

One of the consequences is that universities themselves are no longer directing their students into some of the fields of study traditionally deemed essential to a liberal education. According to Latzer, a recent American Council of Trustees and Alumni report showed that in a representative sample of institutions of different types, very few required a broad range of fields. Of seven key fields of study-- composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and science—nearly half the institutions required courses in less than six. Only 12 percent of the colleges require a general course in literature; a mere 14 percent call for American history or government; and not one college among the 50 demands that its students study economics. I suspect that the two most commonly omitted were foreign languages and history.

As Latzer points out, “Whether or not that is an unfortunate development depends on one's view of the proper purpose of general education. Yet it is that basic question that has all too often been left unexamined. The core and the distribution models offer two very different answers.” He continues:

With the distribution model, general education is a series of diffuse course experiences that expose students to ways of thinking about five or six academic fields. It does not matter if the courses are highly specialized, or even idiosyncratic, because the knowledge to be gained is less important than an appreciation for the methodology.…

The core model, in contrast, views general education as providing a common base of knowledge in the principal fields as well as common skills. That knowledge is viewed as the benchmark of a liberal-arts education, as well as a foundation for future study and reflection. The model also sees general education as preserving and transmitting from generation to generation the great works of music, art, and literature that are considered the crowning achievements of civilization.

Admittedly, one reason for the disfavoring of the core approach has been the challenge in recent decades to the canon of great works. A core curriculum, it is said, privileges some knowledge and writings over others and hence tends to leave out women, minority groups, and non-Western cultures. But a core curriculum need not have the same courses or readings that it had 50 years ago. It can include important works by all peoples. The Columbia University core, for example, has a major cultures component that explores the civilizations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. One can accept that there are great works and support a core approach to general education while debating the content of the honor roll.

Another objection to the core-curriculum approach is that it compels students to enroll in (and faculty members to teach) a mere handful of courses, like them or not. Of course, the essence of the core-curriculum concept is that only a relatively small number of courses are worthy of general education. For those accustomed to virtually unlimited choice, a core would require a new set of expectations. But as no fixed number of courses defines such a curriculum, there is no reason for a core to be unduly restrictive.

Academe routinely calls for critical examination of every conceivable social and political issue, yet at times remains curiously indifferent to its own policies. If, however, the quality and cohesiveness of general education matter--and surely they d--then trustees and college administrators must work with faculty members everywhere to undertake a thoughtful review of what general education is and what it can and should be.

For starters, here are just a few questions to consider: Should general education provide a common foundation of knowledge for students to share? Should general education expose students to the most important ideas, readings, and events? Should general education seek to provide a common foundation to facilitate the teaching of advanced courses?

So far, Harvard professors have not really answered those questions. If they were to do so, they might just develop a general curriculum for the 21st century that could once again serve as a model for the nation.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?