Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

I Want to Major in Everything!

Today, former Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis has a piece on Bits and Pieces proposing a characteristically Lewisian crazy idea modest proposal to reform higher ed:

"[W]hat if there were ONLY [minors]? Get rid of [majors]. Have departments, and interdepartmental committees, offer '[minors],' and require students to earn at least two, but allow students to earn several. (Of course '[minor]' is no longer the right term if there are no [majors]. I'll use it just to convey the idea of a small cluster of courses with some disciplinary coherence and a bit of depth.)"

(some translation from "concentration"/"secondary" Harvardese for my non-Harvard readers) And, heading off the inevitable question before it asks itself:

"So how do we incentivize a deeper education, and the engagement of students in advanced scholarship and research, while not requiring every graduate to have a concentration?

"Well, first of all, having two or three secondaries, say in CS and biochemistry, might be more of an intellectual investment in the future than having a concentration in one or the other. Lots of fields are evolving out of the friction between existing disciplines. A few courses in each of CS and sociology might have been perfect for Zuckerberg."

And so, at risk of bringing my quoted-words ratio above 60%, "Now I'd love to know what's wrong with this idea!" (If you have immediate problems jumping to mind, go read his post, come back here, and then we can talk -- the most obvious objections are addressed there.)

Meme: Study all the things!

I, for one, would enjoy getting a minor each in CS, poetry, and math. Those -- and a course through the General Education curriculum -- might a liberally-educated Ross make. (Okay, okay, let's all ignore for a second that "minor each in math and CS" is basically what my joint-concentration is, and no, you know what, that's important enough to break out of this paren)thetical and say it in real-text-space: This is an option already endorsed by the University. "Joint concentrations", those things that everyone confuses for, but are really nothing like, double majors, more closely resemble two secondaries glued together than the set-union of two concentrations (as people often assume they are).

As well they should! What is liberal (arts) about a Government concentrator who doesn't have more than four classes in any of Applied Math, Classics, Comparative Religion, East Asian Studies, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Economics, History, Medicine, Near Eastern Studies, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, South Asian Studies, Statistics, or --gasp-- Women and Gender Studies? How, exactly, do we expect CS concentrators without at least some training in one of Biology, English, EPS, Gov, Linguistics, Math, Neuro, Psych, Sociology, Stat, Visual Studies, or at the very least anything other than Computer Science to make the world a better place?

And here's a freebie benefit: Students (with parents) worrying about being employable after college don't have to worry that studying English (or Classics, or Slavic Literature, or History, or Music) will make them unemployable by dint of relegating Economics, Government, or Computer Science to the secondary position on their transcript. If students believe that the Econ-at-Harvard brand is a thing that will do them good in life, the school can let them get something "useful" to go with their other secondary. We can let students do that regrettably careerist thing, and still give them the freedom to explore the things they actually love.

At a liberal arts university, concentration should be a thing you choose to do, not a thing you choose one of. I haven't yet reached the point in my education where I want to spend half my time in any one discipline, and any of my peers who think they have, could bear to get out more. A secondary in Folklore and Mythology would probably do them good.