The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"...Man's drive for self expression, which over centuries built his monuments, does not stay within set bounds; the creations, which yesterday were the detested and obscene, become the classics of today."....  ....Matthew Tobriner, California Supreme Court Justice.

Commentary of the Day - August 10, 2007: Should That College Course Come With a Warranty?  Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

It's been slightly more than a decade since I first pointed out that a college education ought to last at least as long as the warranty on an eight-speed blender.  At the time I thought my quip packed a helluva wallop, and that my satiric point would bring to their knees those who championed the trendy or the overtly PC.  It didn't, no matter how many times I kept repeating my mantra about education and eight-speed blenders.  Eventually, I abandoned my warranty talk altogether when my wife told me that blender warranties seldom last more than nine months.  I had something much longer in mind.

I wish I could report that academic courses have straightened themselves out without my interference, thank you very much, but the sad truth is that there are still as many goofy courses as ever.  At the same time, however, I am happy (or at least happier) to report that there's a new sheriff in town and big changes are, as they used to say, "blowin' in the wind."  I refer to the parents of college-bound students who discover that the only thing more shocking than tuition sticker-shock is the shock of seeing what they're (over)-paying for.  Not every course, of course, but many, far too many.  Small wonder that these parents are mad as hell or threatening not to take it any more.

I am conflicted about this backlash.  Part of me is glad (in too many cases they're dead right about the academic dead wood they object to), but part of me worries: these are often the same parents who pore over the U.S. & World News  college issue hoping to make the best investment for their tuition dollars.  Nothing good would happen if this crowd  catches the warranty fever.

At its best, a college education produces trained minds who know when somebody is speaking rot.  Put another way, a liberally educated person understands that pursuing the truth, wherever it may lead, is a lifelong process.  The result focuses on the two questions that matter above all others: Who am I? and How Should a Good Person Live?  The first speaks to the individual soul; the second to one's responsibility to help make a better, more just world.  All too often, parents think of college as an investment that will pay enormous dividends in their children's future.  Maybe, maybe not.  But the sort of investment I meant when I initially talked about warranties had to do with the minds and souls of the people shlepping their sheepskins into the world.

A genuine education is more than the sum of its parts.  That's why I now believe that the total package of an undergraduate education merits nothing less than a lifelong warranty, and why I once proposed, with only part of my tongue in my cheek, that my college set up a refund window on graduation day and give back the entire tuitions of students who, after four years, were leaving the college about as uneducated as when they arrived.  "Give 'em back every nickel," I argued, "and throw a (worthless) diploma into the bargain."  But then -- and here is the kicker -- I urged our president (who was none too happy with me) to also announce the names of those students who had taken full advantage of the opportunities the college afforded and who, as a result, got five or ten times more value than their tuition dollars.  Surely their parents should kick in more money because the day should end with lots of well-earned celebration and more money coming in than went out.

As to individual courses, I am now more sanguine about how warranties might work.  If one thinks of, say, a roof, then 25 years is about right now for one made of slate and maybe a decade for more modest shingling.  In the humanities there are, alas, courses so tied to vagaries of popular culture (Madonna, the Sopranos) that they surely won't last and probably shouldn't have been offered.

My general rule of thumb, by the way, is that courses in the humanities should deal, in one way or another, with the timelessness and unchanging nature of the human condition.  If you want to think of these offerings as anchored in the "great books" tradition that's fine with me.  After all, one doesn't "read" a classic text, one only rereads -- and rereads -- it.  Those are the books with a lifetime warranty.  Other courses might have a lighter reading list, one with decidedly  less moral gravitas, and still pass muster.   Electives in the humanities are, after all, "electives" and I don't want to come off as so pinch-faced that anything less rigorous than, say, Sophocles and Shakespeare won’t wash.

By contrast, science courses, especially at an advanced level, are acutely aware that "change" comes with the territory.  Indeed, the scientific method demands that new ideas be tested and retested, but that if they prevail, they can -- indeed, must -- overturn older notions.  That is why I would be reluctant to push for a lifelong warranty in physics, chemistry, biology, or astronomy courses (remember Pluto?).

Given the fact of soaring tuitions I can understand how nervous and concerned many  parents of college-age children must be, but there's little to be gained by using guides of the sort provided by U.S. News & World Report.  Instead,  compare the curriculum entries in a wide array of college catalogues and see which serves up disposable goods (no one, I am told, repairs blenders anymore; you just buy a new one at K-Mart) and which offer up courses worthy of at least a ten-year warranty.

I conclude with a caveat: a course description provides a hint of "what" will be taught but not how it will be taught.  Ideologues of all stripes can seriously compromise even the best reading list.  I mention this because no course taught by such folks ever got a warranty, not even one for an eight-speed blender.

2007 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.

The IP comments:  While the IP has more than a little sympathy for Sanford's notion that college courses should be laden with substance, he also notes that another worthy goal of education is to provide students with enough intellectual sophistication so that they are willing to challenge received doctrines and conventional wisdom.  Many college courses that are attacked for being unduly trendy or "politically correct" in reality are being attacked because they cause students to question ideas that may indeed be in need of reexamination.  As an example, a right-wing outfit calling itself "Accuracy in Academia" included on its list of "America's Most Ridiculous College Courses" one at UC Santa Cruz called Environmental Inequality.  This particular course focuses on research that purports to show that the poor are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards.  The premise of this course may or may not be correct; however, it seems to the IP that this is a legitimate question to ask.  While certain vested interests might suffer some discomfort if it does turn out that the poor bear a disproportionate share of the effects of environmental pollution, all that should be required of the college course is that it be based on sound science and that it examines the data objectively.

As far as warranties are concerned, the IP would remind Sanford that learning requires effort both on the part of the instructor and the student. 


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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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