Over the years, I have offered scores of first-year students advice. I have encouraged them to clarify their goals; to create long term plans; to think strategically about what they want to get out of the next four years; to explore intellectual interests outside of their comfort zones; to challenge themselves. I have rarely encouraged students to take (or not take) specific courses or professors, a practice that I have always found questionable. Most of my advice has inevitably been ignored. That, though, doesn’t seem to trouble anyone. First-year students, who by the time they see me, are overwhelmed with advice and the entire newness of college are usually just happy to leave with their PIN and the administration feels like it has done its task in offering advising. I have tried to avoid cynicism.
This year, although I will not formally advise first-year students, is a little different. This year I have skin (and an absurd, unsustainable amount of money) in the game. My son enters Brown next year and it has made me think hard about what I want him to take. Below I sketch out my advice to him.
First, a few words of introduction. Brown is unusual in that it has no core curriculum or general education requirements. So in many respects that is what this is, my vision of what every college educated students should take, or at least know by the end college. It probably mirrors in some way the requirements at many other colleges, although I hope that the brief explanations I provide of my reasoning are useful. It is also tailored to my son’s own background, with his unique set of strengths and weaknesses, as I briefly indicate below.
1. Philosophy: 1-2 courses. Everybody should have some idea about how to formulate the “big questions,” e.g., how to live the “good” or meaningful life. One class should focus on major thinkers (more a history of philosophy); the other class either on moral philosophy or some specialized, non-analytical topic (e.g., idealism, existentialism).
2. Political Science: 1 course. This should be on political theory. Every citizen should have an understanding of the theory that undergirds our society as well as alternatives.
3. Literature. 1-2 courses. While many students will have taken such courses in high school, college literature classes will increase their ability to engage with and profit from great literature. At least one of these courses should not be a survey; the goal is to learn to read in a particular way.
4. Art/History of Art. 1 course. Art and music provide alternative ways of understanding and expression. They also can serve as a great source of pleasure, whether in their production or consumption.
5. Music/History of Music. 1 course. See above.
6. Economics. 2 courses. For better or worse, we live in an age that thinks economically. A couple of courses will help students better understand what that means and give them some skills that might help them when it comes to employment.
7. Math: 2 courses. We live in an age of big data. The ability to understand what to do with that data is valuable, not only potentially for career preparation but in many other contexts (e.g., evaluating claims in newspapers). So statistics is a must. For a second math course (my son has already taken BC calculus) I would recommend probability, as a way to understand risk.
8. Computer Science. 2 courses. As with economics, computers are a fundamental part of our society. Computer science courses provide a better grasp of them; practical skills; and a logical and rigorous way of thinking that is applicable in other areas. At least one of these courses should focus on programming.
9. Laboratory Science. 1 course. In college I took four semesters of laboratory science. I didn’t like them and didn’t do well in them. I’m glad I took them, though. Everyone should experience a college lab and engage in the scientific method.
10. Language. I am less certain here. My son is orally fluent in a second language and could continue study in order to have better facility in the literature. Or he could take a new language. Either way, some continued language training seems important.
11. Writing intensive courses. Very few things that one learns in college are is important as good writing. At least one course every semester should involve extensive writing and the opportunity for revision, providing that the instructor delivers quality feedback.
12. Class size. MOOCs and online courses have been extensively discussed as potentially revolutionalizing higher education. In the past few years we’ve also seen their limits, though. For students in college, online courses might be a great way to “take” courses that focus on information delivery. In fact, despite the fact that lecture classes can be quite enjoyable, I would advise students to take only a minimum of these courses in college. The real “value added” of college is feedback and engagement, and the more time that one can spend in smaller classes the better. Such a strategy might result, for example, in a student taking the introduction to macro economics online and then being able to take a smaller economics seminar. This is not always easy to pull off (there is less motivation to do the assignments in a MOOC; one has to squeeze them in somewhere) but it seems silly to spend so much money on information delivery when there are so many cheaper ways to get the same thing.
13. Research skills. I am sometimes stunned by how poor the research skills are of some of my students. I’ve had seniors who don’t know how to use a library (and their online research skills are hardly better). In this case, as with writing, the discipline matters far less than the skill, and any class that helps one to develop basic research skills (history might be good here) is advisable.
This curriculum, over the course of four years, should leave room for most majors and several other electives. It won’t, though, work for everyone. Engineering, and some science, majors are locked into much more constraining curricula. Pre-meds could probably do something along these lines but with fewer electives left. Most importantly, though, it is important that the courses be seen not as things to check off a list but as enjoyable components of one’s education.
I don’t know if my son will take this advice, but if it was at all useful to you, let me know.