The Uniformity Imperative

What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.

Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate.  A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.

Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.

What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.

At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.

2 Replies to “The Uniformity Imperative”

  1. That’s one of the most cynical representations of a liberal arts education that I’ve ever read. Colleges and universities aren’t just filling seats for the revenue. A well-rounded education is not only necessary for understanding the world, it broadens each student’s comprehension in a range of subjects.

    Across the spectrum of higher ed teaching and learning we agree that certain subjects should be taught. Fortunately, unlike public education, professors may choose the materials that we use and engage in a number of teaching and learning modalities. While we may offer the same subjects, each professor has freedom to teach as we see fit. A great many of us study current learning theory and stay current in our fields.

    If you only want students to learn specific things within each discipline, why would we need colleges and universities at all? For instance, doctors should have a broad education about history and society, economics and politics because they must deal with people from many different regions of the planet, who speak different languages and come from different cultures. They are impacted by the politics affecting the cost of services and delivery, laws regarding safety and efficacy, ethics and inclusion. A hospital administrator must not only understand policy-making, execution, and adjudication of mistakes and misbehavior, but have a knowledge of how businesses are managed, the tax structures, etc.

    Switching subjects, those of us who study human capital development and its relevance to politics and economics, know that an educated population is healthy and prosperous. The younger and less educated the general population, the poorer the population is and the less stable is the political environment. Education is the way out of poverty. Many of those I teach live in a highly impoverished area. I WANT them in school and not flipping burgers at some fast-food joint or cashiering for the rest of their lives at minimum wage.

    If a person is only interested in learning a trade, go to VoTech. We need our plumbers and electricians, our mechanics and construction engineers. Oh, but they need a little math, don’t they. Imagine that.

    To simply toss about that we are only filling seats for the money is to speak without knowledge of the value of education. Fill some more seats please. I enjoyed learn’ed people and I enjoy teaching those interested in learning. I am after all, an educator.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Nowhere in my post do I argue against liberal arts courses being part of the undergraduate curriculum, nor do I argue against the economic returns from education. And I don’t take the classist position that future physicians deserve educational opportunities that are different from those of future plumbers. I discuss the McDonaldization of a curriculum and a campus experience that impose unnecessary costs on students.

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