January 22, 2012

Brushing the Dust Off Cornell’s Curriculum

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The 21st century: a dauntingly complex, rapidly-changing place defined by global competition, interconnectedness and the enormous growth of technology.

And, if the experts are right, America is doing a shoddy job of preparing its kids for it: We are educating them for an economy that doesn’t exist –– one that has left the proverbial station. By “we” the experts tend to mean our public education system, and specifically K-12 education.

Cornell, then, is not normally included in discussions about revamping curricula and preparing kids for the future. Most probably think it does fairly well on both counts: Thousands of  courses are offered and graduates — relative to many other schools — do fairly well for themselves afterwards.

Beyond whatever initial impressions people may have, though, lies a decidedly last-century system of requirements. And while this is especially true of Arts and Sciences, in some respects it affects all undergraduates.

The other day I received my DUST — Distributed Undergraduate Student Tracking — report from the College of Arts and Sciences. Historical Analysis; Cultural Analysis, Literature and the Arts; Knowledge, Cognition and Moral Reasoning; Social and Behavioral Analysis; Physical and Biological Sciences; Math and Quantitative Reasoning. These — not counting Geographical and Historical Breadth, oh, and two Physical Education courses, oh, and Foreign Language, oh, and Freshman Writing Seminar — make up the Arts and Sciences distribution requirements.

To some they are incredibly burdensome, to others just something to complete before graduating. They are, in short, just another part of the oft-ballyhooed, surprisingly sprawling and ultimately impossible to ignore Cornell bureaucracy.

Strikingly, though, these requirements focus on broad subject areas and, therefore, content, a decidedly last-century approach. If there is one thing most educators and futurists agree on, it is that the new economy will be based on skills rather than factual knowledge. As former Harvard President Lawrence Summers said in a recent New York Times piece: “Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.”

What else will education and the new 21st century economy be about? Well, according to many experts, a few abilities will define the workplace: the ability to collaborate, to solve increasingly intricate problems using the incredible amounts of data now being generated, to write and communicate clearly and, finally, the ability to learn new skills on the job.  Oh, and computers: operating, navigating and effectively employing technology in order to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. The real problem with the DUST requirements is that they do not specifically address any of these needs.

So here are a few suggestions:

1. Starting with a revamp of the wildly unpopular Freshman Writing Seminars, Cornell should place a much higher — and different — emphasis on writing. Seminars are often uninspiring and dull and ever fewer of them are taught by professors. And even if you happen upon an engaging course, who’s to say that being able to write at the freshman level is really good enough? One idea might be to have an exit writing class –– taught by professors –– that seniors take at some point during their last two semesters and where the expectations are much higher. It would at least ensure that students write well enough for the workplace.

2. More generally, writing should not be taught as such an individual process. It should be taught as a collaborative one. Instead of reading and digesting material on their own and getting punished for handing in work that is similar to a classmate’s, students could learn how to collaborate while researching and producing written work. According to the Center for Public Education, employers “rank collaboration very high on their ‘must have’ competencies.” The skills gained from slaving over an essay alone in the library are not nearly as relevant as those gained from working in groups. The writing seminars –– not to mention other courses –– could easily reflect that.

3. Cornell could also put in place a complex data analysis requirement. I’m sure there are courses which already qualify and could simply be compiled into a list. High level statistics might be worth considering –– perhaps this would be a two-course requirement. Courses focused on analyzing particular problems and providing solutions might be another option: government debt, healthcare overhaul, a sustainable economy. These might have the added benefit of getting students involved in specific issues rather than solely focused on completing their degree.

3. Cornell could put together a fun group of courses that teach students specific skills. Maybe it’s playing the oboe, maybe it’s underwater welding, maybe it’s how to run a farm in an urban space, maybe it’s tight-rope walking. Over the course of a semester students could learn the basics of a completely new skill. Ungraded and outside the general curriculum, such courses would simulate learning a new skill while on the job –– at least more than our current requirements do.

4. Across all courses and majors there should be more learning spaces with integrated technology and collaboration. Students would learn to incorporate technology into their finished work and into presentations: not only powerpoint but also web design, social media and mobile phone apps. These could all be used in effective, creative and educational ways.

There are surely other means to bring Cornell’s currently deadeningly dusty distribution requirements up to date with the twenty-first century. These are a start. Behind any change, however, there must be a willingness to make courses relevant and inspiring. A willingness to analyze large amounts of data about the workplace, collaborate with different colleges and departments and find creative solutions to new problems. In short, a 21st century mentality.

Harry DiFrancesco is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at hdifrancesco@cornellsun.com. Stirring the Pot appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Harry DiFrancesco