Phi Beta Cons

Relevant and Irrelevant Knowledge

I enjoyed Thomas Shakely’s post on the new ACTA core-curriculum evaluations — particularly when he discusses the distinction between “relevant” and “irrelevant” knowledge. Irrelevance is an old student lament, as pre-med students wonder why they’re reading Shakespeare, aspiring English professors loathe college algebra, and accounting majors look at an art-history requirement and wonder why they’re wasting their money. While some students will appreciate their well-rounded education (especially as they get older), a certain percentage will always chafe at requirements that they go “off-mission” to learn what the college thinks they should learn.

Thomas does an able job listing all the benefits of a core curriculum. After all, IT managers belong to the same republic as poets, and it’s worthwhile for both parties to have gained a common set of critical-thinking skills and to participate in our civil society with at least a core knowledge about our history and culture. We’re all voters — at the very least — and we have a responsibility to cast that vote intelligently, in a way that considers not just perceived short-term gain but also long-term political and cultural trends.  

I fear, however, that the drive to return to a core curriculum may meet an unconquerable foe in the “college for everybody” movement. As colleges reach out to the great mass of Americans, they do so as essentially glorified vocational schools, the place where you go to get a good job. A college education becomes a bullet point on a resume and not an end in itself. And as the costs skyrocket, students chafe at spending thousands of dollars on courses that simply don’t fit within their plan.

But perhaps all this will take care of itself. As Nathan notes today, our colleges and universities are buried under mountains of debt, with even the most prestigious schools staring at scary balance sheets. “College for everybody” requires an amount of capacity — in classrooms, dorms, and professors — that simply may not exist if the bubble bursts. Markets have a way of forcibly introducing reality to even the most high-minded ideas. We may end up with a solid core curriculum because — at the end of the day — the people who will attend college in its pared-down, less ambitious form will be there because they like knowledge, both relevant and irrelevant.

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