Basketweaving 101

Aug. 21, 2003
College administrators and faculties argue that schools must have diverse student bodies because diversity “enriches” the educational process.

College administrators and faculties argue that schools must have diverse student bodies because diversity “enriches” the educational process. It supposedly does this by bringing a broader range of viewpoints to classroom discussions. And by being exposed to a broader range of viewpoints, students are supposed to learn how to think more incisively. If students aren't exposed to a wide range of viewpoints, they may never learn how to think clearly, or so the story goes.

It is hard to imagine a more fallacious chain of logic than the one you've just read. I am not going to let this lead me into an emotion-charged discussion about diversity or affirmative action. But I will use it to launch into opinions about what should happen in a classroom.

Like most engineering students, I had my share of liberal-arts courses in college. These courses involved lots of classroom discussion. Then in the evenings away from the classroom, we would have more discussions in fraternity-house bull sessions. The discussions might be followed by lively debates in bars or while just sitting around after finishing our homework. Through it all, I was being exposed to a wide range of viewpoints, none of which made me any smarter or taught me how to think more perceptively.

Whenever I had classes that were discussion-oriented, the students who entered the room dumb left the room in the same condition after “being exposed to a wide range of viewpoints.” And those who entered the room “knowing how to think” left the room still knowing how to think. Then as now, being exposed to discussions and a broad range of opinions had nothing to do with making people dumber or smarter.

The reason is obvious. First, no kid between the ages of 18 and 22, fresh from a beer blast or from listening to a stack of CDs, has anything to say that can make another person think more incisively. Secondly, I believe the adage that says you never learn anything while you are talking. You learn by shutting your mouth and listening to a lecturer tell you things you ought to know. Finally, in today's climate of political correctness, classroom discussions that are supposed to teach you how to think are more likely telling you what to think.

Classes built around discussion end up either validating or invalidating opinions, not facts. Any college course built around forming opinions has no academic validity. Being able to spout opinions and viewpoints doesn't prove you are educated or an incisive thinker. It just means you are good at keeping a bull session going.

Professors don't agree, of course. They love classroom discussions because if they can build courses around them, they don't have to know anything except how to shoot the breeze. Moreover, there is no way anyone can evaluate them or hold them accountable.

Although instructors can't teach aerodynamics without knowing something about aerodynamics, they can walk into most liberal-arts courses, get a discussion going, and feel they have done their job if they get students involved in lively arguments. The educational process then becomes whatever the instructors say it is.

All of this leads me to a radical hypothesis. The academic validity of any course in a college curriculum should be put under the microscope if answers to test questions aren't numbers or facts. If it turns out that the answers are merely opinions, then the course should be thrown out of the curriculum.

- Ronald Khol, Editor

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