Sometime back in middle school, your teachers may have finally given you the privilege of choosing ‘electives,’ which were outside of the core curriculum of what was taught to the bulk of the student body.
As you progressed through high school, you generally had more choices—but the same thematic academic subjects are still retained at the core of our education: math, science, social studies and some form of English literature of grammar. Perhaps maybe even classes on public speaking.
It’s true, I think, that the majority of high school kids have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. A lot of college kids don’t, either. You may run into a number of newly-minted Bachelors students, who just completed a major at the insistence of their parents, advisors, peer pressure, or, God-forbid, personal interest, and still have no idea what they want to do. “Stay in school” is a popular response—even David Mamet, in his popular theatrical guidebook ‘True and False’ admits that our generation “would like to stay in school.” And why not? It’s safe—mistakes are oftentimes forgiven, and it saves us from facing the reality that what we were interested in or may have intensely studied in college doesn’t play well into a career-path in the real world.
The point I’m trying to make here is that I believe core education is actually harmful to figuring out what you want to study. I once had a professor of Religion who said, ‘I think college should be five years. Do whatever you want the first four, then major your fifth year.’ This might seem radical and extreme to dogmatic liberal arts idealism, but the man had a point – education is for exploration and making mistakes, NOT for forcing a student to study something he or she is not in the least bit interested in.
You may be saying, OK, but there are going to be students who love math and want to study it intensely. There will be biologists who love it, social studies students who find something they love in it, and that’s fine—but what of the music students, the film majors, the actors, the photographers, and the journalists? What of the students who studied Classics, Physical Education, and Painting?
In order to study these things, a student will still be required to take certain ‘core’ classes, like united states or world history, some type of collegiate math, a social science elective like psychology, and the like. There are many more options in college—but the time in class and the time studying detract from the time they could be spending delving deeper into the field they really want.
Now, of course I believe students need basic mathematical skills, and rudimentary historical knowledge. This is all covered when you go to school at a younger age, and serves a dual purpose—first, it gives your parents a place to put you while they go to work so you’re not tearing up the house with the endless amount of energy you have—and second, it’s supposed to give you a core foundation for the numerous things you eventually could find of interest.
But all they do is prepare you for the same subjects at higher levels. Basic arithmetic prepares you for high school algebra, algebra prepares you for Calculus, Calculus for Differential Equations, and so forth. But none of these things really fit into the model of what the creative students really want to study, so while they could be out shooting and editing their own films, writing plays, and painting pictures, they’re sitting at home solving math problems and studying ‘order-of-operations’ for the next test.
I think that, to be honest, the liberal arts curriculum needs to seriously be restructured to fit more-or-less what my Religious Studies professor said. (which, by the way, was NOT part of a core or general education requirement, but something I took for fin). High school and college should be a time for exploration and to be able to make mistakes. Right now, there are so many students taking five or more years simply because they changed their mind about their majors, and their core classes took up too much of their time. Or the class they really needed conflicted with something they were required to take just to graduate—as is a big problem at liberal arts colleges and small Universities where there are not many class sections as at larger public schools.
Imagine it—a school where you spend your semester exploring industrial technology; you learn wood and metalwork, and then decide hey, I really want to learn computer programming, and then do that, while also learning how to take really good black and white photos.
With a model like this, not only would the schools’ ancient ‘core’ classes be filled with students who actually wanted to take them, but professorial hiring would increase, as students who wanted to learn more in-depth about their chosen subject would increase, and the demand for more classes would go up. I fondly remember how back at my school’s Theatre department, there was huge demand for a class in puppetry, but no one to teach it. Had those theatre students not been preoccupied with biology, non-linear algebra, and cultural anthropology, they may have had the time to get up and do something about it.
Change should always come from the center-out, from the students, and not from the administration-down, but with education’s currently narrow focus on mathematics, science, social studies, and English, the school’s current students, who are usually accepted to the school based on their performance on those very subjects, never know what they are missing out on.