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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

Time is the best teacher; Unfortunately it kills all its students!.... ...seen on a bumper sticker.

Commentary of the Day - July 25, 2000: Process vs. Substance at Portland State.

According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the vaunted "university studies" program at Portland State University has come under attack from members of the university's own faculty.  "University studies" is an interdisciplinary, general education program that "emphasizes community service, small classes, and interaction with professors and student mentors".  The new 45 credit program, which replaces the previous 63 credit general education program that focussed on English composition, arts and letters, science and social science, is intended to provide students with the skills that they need to learn.

In short, the new program emphasizes the processes associated with learning rather than the content of traditional general education programs.  The "university studies" program was adopted in 1994 to better meet the needs of Portland State's very diverse, urban student population.  The program has received funding from both the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust, and many of its elements have been emulated at other colleges and universities across the country.

As reported in the Chronicle, students begin the program with Freshman Inquiry, which is taught from an interdisciplinary perspective and which includes such topics as "Knowledge, Art and Power", and "Entering the Cyborg Millennium".  Students are expected to explore ideas, and to learn to use e-mail, the Internet, word-processing and calculational software.  In the sophomore year students choose from a variety of interdisciplinary courses such as "dynamics of the American city" and "environmental sustainability".  They continue in the junior year by focussing on one area that was studied in the sophomore year, and in the senior year students choose from 117 different capstone courses that emphasize community service.  Among these are "Girl Power", "Air Quality, Vehicle Emissions and Oxygenated Fuels", and "Global Portland: Refugees".

Among Portland State students the program has both supporters and detractors.  One student interviewed for the Chronicle article, a 37-year-old mother of three teenagers, was so impressed with the "Girl Power" course that she developed a nonprofit group based on it.  She appreciated the fact that Portland state was turning out citizens instead of "brains with legs".

However, another student - a 39-year-old sophomore music major - reported that he gets A's in the program "for doing almost nothing".  Another student - a premed major - complained of not being challenged by the program.  In her words courses in the program were "dumbed down to cater to the lowest common denominator".

Faculty members who have become disenchanted with the program have complained that it does not give students the fundamentals that they need to properly appreciate the interdisciplinary courses, and does not give them the background they need to take more sophisticated disciplinary courses.  One physics professor, who developed a freshman university studies course called "Embracing Einstein's Universe: Language, Culture, and Relativity", now feels that many students who take the course lack the basic knowledge of scientific concepts needed to understand what is being taught.

The administration at Portland State, according to program critics, has been extraordinarily defensive about the program, and has not - according to the critics - been willing to engage in a meaningful dialog about the academic merits of the program.  The faculty critics also have complained that the program has not been subject to rigorous, independent assessment.

Portland State provost, Mary Kay Tetreault (who formerly served as vice president for academic affairs at the Irascible Professor's campus), claims that the program educates students, but in a way that is unfamiliar to some instructors.  In the Chronicle article she is quoted as saying that "the claim on the part of the professors that this is shallow frequently comes from faculty who are very focussed on content and discipline and believe that thinking about yourself as a learner and knower are not appropriate in the classroom".

Having worked in the same institution with her for several years, the IP is not at all surprised by this rather insulting comment from Provost Tetreault.  Her background is in education, and her views on many issues are colored by the dominance of process over substance in the schools of education.  The IP spent several years attempting to educate her to the importance of strong foundational knowledge in a student's education with not much success.

The IP is sympathetic to the needs of students who are returning to school after long absences, or who are the products of failed K-12 systems.  He understands that many of these students do not enter the university with the kind of learning skills that they need to survive rigorous college level courses.  He believes that if universities admit these students to their programs, they have an obligation to help these students acquire the skills that they need to learn.  However, he also believes that the students who find themselves in this situation have an obligation to bring themselves up to speed as quickly as possible.  The IP also subscribes to the common sense view that in order to engage in interdisciplinary work one needs some basic understanding of the disciplines involved.

It is foolhardy to water down the curriculum and individual courses so that the weakest students - including those who lack study skills - can survive them.  In the long run, this produces graduates who are unable to compete in a highly competitive world.  The goal of the urban universities such as Portland State (and the IP's own home institution) should be to provide access, to help students develop their learning skills through tutorial support, and to transform students by insisting that they gain a basic understanding of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.  Only in this way will they be freed from the chains of the egocentric, situational world view that is so common among today's youth.

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© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.