Thursday, December 13, 2012

Program Prioritization

Coming to terms with university changes.

Every college or university that wants to stay current must occasionally evaluate what majors, minors and certificates it offers. The concept of the university developed from the academies and gymnasiums of Greece and Rome. Those institutions offered more limited training, usually in math, public speaking or philosophy. The idea of a "university" was that it would prepare certain people for a "universe" of knowledge. Not everyone could go to a university. Only those who had enough resources and time that they could pursue intellectual ends rather than the production of goods and services could go. Those people were seen as more free than those trapped in productive labor, and so those things one learned at the University were known as the "liberal arts." There were seven of these. First students learned the trivium: logic, grammar and rhetoric. No one could have the mental acumen to move on to more advanced studies without mastering these, so they were taught first. They were called the trivium because there were three of them. The fact that they were the basis of everything else is the reason that today we call basic knowledge "trivia." Once one had mastered the trivium one could move on and study the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Only after one had mastered these could he (and it was virtually always he) study philosophy and theology, the study informed by these others.

For centuries, some near variation on the program described above was a university education. As a "liberal arts" advocate, I think that there is much to commend it. First of all, I strongly believe that teaching arithmetic to people who haven't mastered logic is a massive failing and the reason so many students struggle with math.  I certainly never understood math growing up. Those who were good at math seemed to see it as a game. Understanding it as part of a larger logical structure and one of many logical systems finally made it click for me, but that wasn't until I took classes in logic in college. How can one really understand trigonometry when one doesn't really know what an axiom is? But this is a digression.

Today's courses of study are not the same as those of a millennia ago. For one thing the lower, "practical" arts have merged with the liberal arts and the rise of democratic philosophies and related democratic societies has rendered the division between free people and those who labor as obsolete (for now). Free people are expected to work. Work for wages is no longer seen as an inherent impediment to an intellectual life. The university for the past two centuries at least has encouraged a "major" in one area, often a practical art, but sometimes a liberal art and "general studies" which give free people the access they need for an intellectual life as well.

So, there are two areas where a university constantly needs to update their offerings. One area is in the practical arts. The other area is in the liberal arts. In a democratic society, the liberal arts are more than just intellectual games. They are the means by which one acquires the knowledge one needs to perform the practical arts as they change. The liberal arts really haven't changed a huge amount since medieval times. We use "algebra" instead of arithmetic or geometry because of its ability to incorporate both logical systems. We have added "science" understood broadly. Most liberal arts programs require a couple different sciences so that scientific ways of gaining knowledge are understood by students. We've sort of decided that any kind of "art" can be substituted for music; it can be painting, sculpture, theater or music. The main thing is that students know how to arrive at knowledge through a creative process. While every university has a slight difference in how it manages the liberal arts, but we could probably create a new series. Students should know how to garner knowledge, logically (through argument), mathematically (through manipulation of numbers), dialectically (through interpersonal conversation or group work), lexically (through interacting with media), scientifically (through empirical observation of the natural world), social scientifically (through empirical observation of the social world) and artistically (through creation). While I could easily find people to argue over my choice of terms, these are the goals of most "general studies" programs, the vestiges of the liberal arts.

The practical arts are the ones that have changed the most and will continue to change the most. It will also be the most different from university to university. The program prioritization at Western New Mexico University is completed, for now. Mostly it has involved the consolidation of certain programs. No positions on the "professor" track will be eliminated, but it looks like some very good adjuncts will probably find their services no longer required.

Perhaps the most shocking to me is the elimination of the Computer Science major (the Computer Science professors will be asked to teach "computer literacy," a form of lexical thinking, and math). When I was an undergrad, during the height of the dotcom bubble, Computer Science was where the "smart" students majored. I.T. was a lucrative field with a guaranteed middle class income for competent practitioners and those who were both competent and creative were guaranteed wealth. Now, the person who can code in 10 languages and do calculus in his or her head seems to be struggling to keep his or her job at McDonald's.  The code monkeys in cubicles have moved to Asia where they make what is well below the minimum wage in the United States. In short, Computer Science majors cannot get jobs. Because people increasingly know that they cannot get jobs with a Computer Science degree, sensible students don't major in that. Because sensible students don't major in that, the program has died. This is the problem with the "practical arts." Whatever skill set one develops is only one skill set in a world wide market. It is almost certainly a skill set that will be obsolete soon. Often, what was most marketable one day is considered useless the next.

I am really sad to see Computer Science go. It is hard for me to entirely explain why. It might be related to my sadness at seeing smoking sections in restaurants go, seeing so few students wearing flannel and the disappearance of the bookstore. It might just be nostalgia for a time when I looked at the future and saw more hope. Of course, as I write this blog on an IPad during a meeting on modernizing and redesigning our courses using contemporary tools, I have a lot of hope for the future and no desire to return to a time when a computer was a big box in my dorm room.

Things change, and the courses that are "practical" right now will be useless in a few years. The courses in gaining and maintaining different kinds of knowledge, however, will continue to allow the people who majored in the "smart" practical fields can adjust to whatever the smart practices of tomorrow are. I am excited to see "what comes next."

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