Do you remember being taught the necessity of a college education as a child? From the moment I was cognizant until the day I unpacked my bags at Kronshage, just about every authority figure in my life instilled within me the belief that, were I to go through life sans a diploma, I would end up a bum, a grocery bagger or, at best, a mediocre retail sales clerk.
In hindsight, I feel very fortunate to have received such encouragement. I owe my gratitude, however, not because I'll be able to avoid those jobs deemed undesirable (in fact, given the present direction of professional journalism, I would wager I've actually become more likely to end up a grocery bagger), but because I've enjoyed the opportunity to reserve four years of my life for little more than the pursuit of knowledge.
Since its inception, the idea of a university education has been one without a clear-cut purpose. Originally, students were to become learned in a multitude of academic fields but to graduate without truly tangible gains. I recall my dad often joking about the uselessness of his political science degree (a degree that, coincidentally, I'm currently pursuing).
In a more serious tone, however, he would always point out the true importance of attending a university: acquiring a sense of worldliness, understanding differing perspectives and losing the pervasive naiveté formed in adolescence — all things difficult to attain without the opportunity provided by college.
Although it's unlikely that universities ever were the perfect bastions of enlightenment one can easily romanticize about, they have certainly strayed from their origins in recent times.
Somewhere along the way, classic liberal arts institutions, in order to preserve themselves, began to subtly incorporate schools of trade. Slowly, students were allowed to entertain studies ranging from finance to public utilities and, eventually, even to marketing. It's hard to believe that prestigious universities can now teach students tricks to advertise their wares.
Apart from one's view on whether certain trades should be a part of curricula in a liberal arts setting, what is truly worrisome are the losses that accompany these 'gains.' Indeed, at most schools, requirements do exist to encourage a well-rounded experience regardless of major, but the ease with which said requirements can be shirked almost negates their existence.
Unfortunately, more than a few of the classical fields of collegiate study practically cater to students of computer science, engineering and accounting, who are often only interested in cheaply satisfying those pesky liberal arts requirements. Many such requirements at the University of Wisconsin can be fulfilled without much effort. I reluctantly admit that I, myself, have occasionally benefited from classes with easy-to-cram-for, textually based, multiple-choice exams that render a true commitment to course material optional. Students pursuing a trade can easily focus attention solely on their primary field of study for a whole semester and still earn the respectable 'B' in some liberal arts class — assuming they're willing to kill themselves for a few nights come exam time.
Regrettably, a solution to ensure the prosperity of the liberal arts is non-existent. Certainly, universities could adopt stipulations guaranteeing attendance, participation, etc., but the idea of treating college students like high-schoolers runs contrary to the ends of a classical institution. Ideally, students should attend university out of a desire to enrich themselves. In a perfect world, college courses wouldn't even need to have exams.
Another option — separating the teaching of trades and liberal arts — is absolutely impossible at this point. In order to attract students and their tuition, colleges must offer studies of agriculture, interior design and the like. Further, public universities would quickly go extinct if unable to offer solid proof of material gains for society. Can you even imagine how the Wisconsin Legislature would go about funding UW if its course offerings were limited to such fields as art, literature and history?
Perhaps universities could expand the scope of their students' education by better promoting the liberal arts, offering superior counseling and more effectively teaching students via smaller lectures and engaging discussion sections. Admittedly, not every student can major in English, but those studying a trade should at least be recognizable enough to faculty that they are forced to do more than attend one lecture per semester for a passing grade.
At this point, any realist must accept that liberal arts colleges are simply going to teach trades. However, this doesn't mean that universities should be treated as trade schools.
Rob Rossmeissl ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism and political science.