Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Inefficiency Across the Curriculum

I’ve observed a disturbing trend (it’s gone on far too long for a fad) in education toward “across-the-board” curriculum elements. The most recent example, which affects me rather directly, is the requirement that group-work be included in every MBA class here at CSUN. (Actually, it may not be a requirement, but one of the items on every MBA class evaluation form is “Did this class help you to develop your teamwork skills?” or something to that effect.) The idea, of course, is that teamwork is so important that students should practice their teamwork in every class. Similarly, many high schools and colleges have implemented “writing across the curriculum” requirements, under which every class of every subject -- including math classes -- should have the students do a substantial writing assignment of some kind.

Two things irk me about “across-the-board” requirements. The first is their apparent lack of regard for the value of specialization. I was trained in economics, and that’s where my comparative advantage lies. Fortunately, I have reasonably good writing and editing skills, so I’m not worthless to my students in those areas. But the same cannot be said for all economists, or mathematicians or physicists. Moreover, I don’t have time in an economics class to spend on grammar and writing lessons, because I barely have enough time to cover all the economics material I want to cover. As a result, the writing assignments in my classes probably don’t actually improve anyone’s writing skills. The good writers get good grades, the bad writers get bad grades, and that’s all there is to it. To make people better writers, you have to assign them multiple papers and provide extensive feedback on each one, and you need to make them revise each paper to correct the problems. But doing all of that would seriously detract from my ability to teach my students economics.

My second problem with “across-the-board” requirements is their susceptibility to political bias (for lack of a better term). Why are writing and teamwork skills required across the board, while quantitative skills are not? In my experience, I’ve found students’ quantitative skills to be just as bad as, probably worse than, their writing and teamwork skills. A writing-across-the-curriculum requirement imposes no additional burden on an English teacher, because writing is already the crux of the course, but it imposes a substantial burden on me. Why isn’t the English teacher required to test his students’ quantitative skills, just as I’m expected to test my students’ writing skills? My best guess (readers are invited to suggest others) is that the people who impose such requirements don’t emphasize math because they, too, are deficient in their quantitative skills, and they feel awkward about requiring of students what they lack themselves. But if this hypothesis is true, it’s evidence of a greater need for quantitative skills.

Not that I would advocate a “math across the curriculum” rule, because I wouldn’t trust most teachers in other subjects to do it correctly. I would settle instead for the weakening of the current across-the-board requirements that place a disproportionate burden on one subset of the faculty.

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