Today one of my students Facebooked that “Every college student in the United States should be required to take a Race & Ethnicity course.” Several people immediately agreed, of course. But ever the contrarian, I asked some questions.

1. When have we intruded too far into people’s personal choices?

2. Who bears the cost?

3. How will this be enforced?

4. Would there be a required perspective? Could a college teach a course with the perspective that race is a myth with no scientific validity? Or a course that emphasizes the genetic inferiority of certain races?

5. What about the people who don’t go to college? Do they not need it as much, perhaps more, than people who have gone to college?

It’s easy to assert that there ought to be a law. It’s harder to provide good answers to the practical questions of implementation.

Category: School

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35 Responses to Policy Guys Piss on Everything

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    There you go, pouring a cold bucket of reality onto the fires of righteous passion!

    • James Hanley says:

      After subsequent comments I had to clarify that I wasn’t arguing against the value of such courses, or even against any college making the course a requirement. Because the internet is still the internet

  2. Michael Cain says:

    Do they intend for it to apply to the four-or-five year trade school program many universities operate under the (at least somewhat) misleading name “School/College of Engineering”?

    Lately I’ve been inclined to rant about people in the traditional parts of universities demanding that the engineers ought to get some history, philosophy, fine arts, etc. I applaud engineering students who take advantage of the availability of those, but am reluctant to tell a Chem.E. major — who is a more determined student than I’ve ever been — that they have to pick up another semester’s worth of classes. I’m inclined to answer such posts/articles with a demand that the traditional “college as a broad education” students ought to be required to pick up several hours of software credits. After all, they will almost certainly be asked to prepare spreadsheets at some point*, and it’s a guarantee that software is going to screw their lives up. Nobody’s “educated” if they don’t have at least some understanding about why VW could cheat so easily on the emissions tests :^)

    * Spreadsheets are notorious for the extraordinarily high error rate in prodocution code. It’s worth noting that the spreadsheet model itself violates any number of programming “best practices”.

    • aaron david says:

      The uni that my son goes to (and father taught at) if famous for being a 5year school. It is also one of the best engineering/arch/business/ag schools in CA. To me, much of the slack, so to speak, about required courses should be taken care of at the high school level, as that is the required level of education today. And yes, I do know how much overburdened those students are! (at that level it might force someone to look harder at what we are requiring and when we are requiring it)

    • oscar.gordon says:

      Hear! Hear!

      Madison had a Depth & Breadth requirement for Engineering & CS (etc.), but it was basically 5 classes from a wide variety of options. If you wanted to, you could pick classes such that they had utility & relevance to your degree.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        I had to take one class designated as ethnic studies, which I took over the summer. Again, it was a category with lots of options. The whole point was to hopefully expose the midwest farmkids to something not Western.

    • jhanley says:

      I hear you. I think everyone should take a stats course, and a course in simplified probability theory so that they understand the world is probabilistic and that they should be less worried about their plane flight or terrorist attacks than going down to the nearest convenience store (however it is they mean to get there).

      One person responded that every department ought to have a course touching on race and ethnicity, and when I asked if she meant chem and physics, she did say she thought chem should have have one.

      And there was some soft tapping around the how they’re taught issue, that made it clear to me that they have particular normative perspectives in mind, so it’s not just a “this is an important topic” (like, say, requiring American Government, or stats), but “they need to be taught this perspective.”

    • Brandon Berg says:

      Especially engineering students. Minorities (well, real minorities) are highly underrepresented in engineering, which means that all engineers are racists.

      What’s the point in learning how to calculus when you don’t even know about original sin?

      • Brandon,

        I do think a strategic range and number of well-taught humanities courses might be very good at helping those students, as well as working-class students or first generation college students, acquire the cultural capital they’ll need to navigate their professional lives.

        Of course, even if you agreed with me, you could also disagree about what counts as a “strategic range and number” and what counts as “well-taught.”

        And I should say that I therefore mostly agree with Michael Cain even though I also believe that humanities and liberal arts course can have a strong instrumental value, in addition to whatever intrinsic merit they might have as well.

        • Brandon Berg says:

          Sure, but the OP is about someone saying a White Guilt class should be required, not a generic humanities requirement. Engineering students already are required to take humanities classes at every four-year college, as far as I know.

        • jhanley says:

          I wouldn’t go so far as to say white guilt course. But a course with a distinctly liberal perspective, yes.

        • Well, I’m not so sure that such a course should be a “requirement” for everyone in every college. And I’m not going to defend that claim.

          I also don’t deny that there is a liberal perspective in a course about race/ethnicity.

          I do think that in theory, a course on race/ethnicity could be rigorous in the best sense of the word. It could examine different approaches to race/ethnicity, different models for viewing those phenomena, and the role those categories have played in history. It could engage in current controversies over how to define race and ethnicity and how to approach the problems that implicate them, or even to investigate the degree to which those problems are bona fide “problems” or problems “about” race and ethnicity.

          Even if the course lived up to that standard, I admit there’d still be a certain perspective it would enforce. Racial realism, for example, would be noted, but probably not accepted as a valid position to take. But as I’ve said above, it’s hard to conceive of a course that doesn’t impose some such limitations. A course on the antebellum South, for example, would have to take note of the racist defenses for slavery and yet not accept a paper that argues, “hey, those slaveowners were right.” In fact, I’d hope that an assignment in an antebellum course would never present the question in such a way that “hey, those slaveowners were right” is a conceivable answer.

          Or…..the course could be a touchy-feely exercise in which only a very narrow range of ideas or opinions are entertained. Where a criticism of, say, “black pride” or of affirmative action is considered ipso facto racist.

  3. fillyjonk says:

    Blanket requirements breed all kinds of awful unintended consequences. University bureaucracies tend to be both brainless and heartless about such things, and so there’s always those few people who wind up getting totally screwed in some way by a requirement like this.

  4. Mr. Blue says:

    Well, I guess you could make an argument that a college degree is supposed to signify a breadth of knowledge that should include the above. That it’s not so much that everyone should have to do it, but that if you want to call yourself a college educated person you do.

    Curiously enough, my alma mater had a related requirement, almost. I started out a biology major. I had to take a world social studies class, which meant that I had to learn about a country that wasn’t the US or Europe. My inability to knock down a class on Europe was frustrating because I would have loved to do Spain (the land of my ancestors, though maybe not much longer). Russia didn’t count as Europe, though, so I ended up taking a class on Russia.

    • Michael Cain says:

      I did my undergraduate math/comp sci in the College of Arts and Sciences, so I did a foreign language, some history, a bit of philosophy, English composition (which was largely a waste; but I would require all of the engineers to take a writing class, where they have to write every week and get decent feedback on it, and a speech class), and a lab science which turned into a minor in physics. All of it was interesting.

      I ended up as a systems analyst, in the old sense of that term before the IT people confiscated it, so everything turned out to be useful.

      • In my experience, English composition was largely a waste, too. Maybe it’s because of the attitude I brought to it. It was a requirement and I just wanted to get it over with. But I also wonder if “composition” can really be taught in a course “about” composition. The courses in my majors, however, required a lot more writing, and that’s where I think I learned most of what I needed.

    • jhanley says:

      So Mr. Blue’s a Catalonian? Perhaps he’s a descendant of Stephen Maturin?

  5. Murali says:

    One thing that I keep hearing is that the science guys need to take history, lit and philosophy. Liberal arts types never seem to argue that humanities guys need to take statistics, programming and physics (or chemistry or biology) etc

    • fillyjonk says:

      I used to teach non-majors bio, and the biggest griping I heard were from the business majors who felt that taking science classes (and some of the liberal arts) were the biggest waste of their valuable time ever.

      Some of the elementary ed majors also complained, but not quite as bitterly.

      On the other side: one of my department’s majors complained bitterly about being made to take a theater appreciation class. I will say one of his classmates responded, “Dude? You’re getting a grade to *go watch plays and write about them*”

    • I’m not so sure about the “never” part, although the only evidence I have is anecdotal. At any rate, I have encountered the attitude you talk about and there was a time when I had that attitude.

    • jhanley says:

      I’d substitute rarely for never, but, yeah, that’s common. I tell my majors that if they pay attention in their lab science class they’l find the political science research methods class a lot easier.

  6. RTod says:

    What an odd post and threads.

    “X should be required” is a kind of universal slang for, “I heartily approve of this.” As in, “The Road to Serfdom should be required reading for all high school students,” or “owning a copy of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress should a requirement for any fan of sci-fi.” Heck, Will writes frequently about how everyone should be required to work food service at least once in their life, and no one dissects his comment the way everyone in this post is doing about some guy on Facebook saying basically the same thing.

    I think this is one of those incidents where the reactions of people to it is far more interesting than the incident itself.

    • jhanley says:

      I have reason to believe they were a little more serious than that. And to be fair to them, they are members of a group that gives them reason to be a little more serious than that.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      Well with regard to the discussion, most of it is just us STEM folks grousing that we get to have some non-STEM group force their preferences on us in the name of well rounded education, but we rarely get to return the favor.

      • jhanley says:

        Y’all are getting some satisfaction in Japan, no? 😉

        • Michael Cain says:

          Don’t laugh. At the rate things are going in a number of states, some number of public universities are going to make serious program cuts. At least some of those will choose to make all of the cuts on the “traditional college education” side and leave the “four year engineering trade school” side intact.

        • jhanley says:

          I’m not really laughing. It’s already happened at a few schools in the U.S., and I’m not overly confident it can’t happen at my own school.

          It was a hell of a pleasure to listen to the Carthage College President give a talk to the incoming students (which included my daughter) about how they really ought to dig in to their non-majors classes because there was so much value from that learning. It’s rarely said these days.

          They also had a book they sent to all incoming frosh to read over the summer, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I liked because it combines issues of STEM and issues of social sciences and philosophy.

        • Michael Cain says:

          That’s a good choice. So’s Longitude, which has science and engineering, but also history and political science.

  7. fillyjonk says:

    To be really fair – I am a STEM person and I enjoyed my non majors classes like Great Books and Linguistics. It was a break from all biology, all the time, and got me thinking differently.

    But I think part of it was I was an oddball student (I am reading through “the classics” – like Moby-Dick – that I never read in school, on my own, as an adult) and partly that times have changed and maybe some students have a hard time justifying the “cost” of a class they fail to see the value of – and of course, lots of folks in the media are happy to continue with the college = certification idea.

    I don’t know. I don’t see it getting better any time soon. I have no good solutions to the rising price of tuition. (If I did, I’d either be writing a book or running for elected office….)

    • jhanley says:

      Meanwhile, we SoSci and Humanities profs complain that students don’t see the value of our courses, but we don’t take the trouble to figure out how to explain that value to them up front–we expect them to just get it, but who’s really responsible for making sure they get it if not us?

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      I saw the value in my D&B classes, beyond just the break from math & physics, and I don’t regret taking them, or think my alma mater should change that requirement.

      I just wish they’d create a complementary requirement for math & science that is a bit more involved than “Introduction to Weather & Climate”. I mean, come on, something with a touch of rigor to it.

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