52 Card Pick-up

Posted: Feb 28, 2007 12:01 AM

As kids we used to play “52 Card Pick-Up.” It starts by asking an unsuspecting friend, “Do you want to play 52 Card Pickup?!” “Well, I’ve never played before, but sure,” he says.

You then throw the deck in the air, let the cards separate and fly around the room, and say, “Okay, your turn. Pick-up!”

Something like that is going on in education. It has to do with the movement to discard the academic disciplines in favor of teaching students “what they really need to know” or introducing them to “the real world.”

The disciplines, however imperfect they may be, provide—well, discipline. They bring organization and accountability to the curriculum. A college education is not like "52 Card Pick-Up", whereby you throw up the deck of cards and let them land where they will. The curriculum must be organized in some reasonable fashion. It's a practical matter.

Academic disciplines have a long pedigree. Some of the disciplines go back for two millennia, when Aristotle taught his class in physics, and then his class “after physics” on philosophical principles—the Metaphysics. The Trivium and the Quadrivium coalesced in the Middle Ages. The Trivium consists of logic, rhetoric and grammar; the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These are still pretty good checklists for a good education. You will occasionally find them in private schools or as the organizing scheme in home schooling curricula. The results are usually SAT scores between 1300 and 1500.

The organization of the disciplines has refined over the centuries. Although the disciplines may be criticized for too narrow a focus for the “real” world, they, in fact, provide these subject building blocks precisely to insure that students are equipped for the real world. Otherwise, it is “hit or miss.”

So, in abandoning the "disciplines" and giving students "what they really need to know" we are discarding a proven method of organization--admittedly arbitrary, imperfect, Western, "logo-centric," "traditional" etc.--in favor of a new scheme of organization that is arbitrary, unproven, and may vary according to the personalities and prejudices of those involved.

One of the movements to discard the disciplines is sometimes—ironically—what is called “interdisciplinary studies.” If one means by “interdisciplinary studies” the opportunity to approach a subject of study, say the Renaissance, by coordinating studies from history, art, music and philosophy, then such an approach is unobjectionable. To the contrary, it is tactically shrewd, given that those who teach the respective courses are competent if not expert in their fields. I myself teach a course entitled “War and Shakespeare,” a class combining literature, political philosophy, and military history. I feel barely competent but the outcome seems to justify the risk, especially as I’ve asked my respective colleagues in related disciplines—History and English, for example—to look over my shoulder.

But something more is going on in the attempt to reorganize the curriculum. The first clue should be the habitual denigration of traditional disciplines and subject matter, which is often branded “isolated” and “self-contained.” The disciplines, it is said, have performed a “major disservice” by “dividing problems in little pieces.” Such self-serving “compartmentalization,” it is said, has exacted a heavy price on society by frustrating human progress.

Removing the disciplines, however, also removes accountability. Who is minding the store? We may not like the standards applied but at least we know whom to blame.

But how do we assess the merit of a recent interdisciplinary program "Sex and Sexuality in Contemporary Hip Hop”? Who are the experts? Howard Stern? 2Pac? And from which department is assessment made? Music? Philosophy? Dance?

Once conventional oversight is removed, mischief may arise: A graduate student of a major U.S. university recently complained, “While the catalogue says that the History Department ‘encourages interdisciplinary approaches,’ the reality is that, unless you want to do something on ‘medieval women’ or ‘medieval sexuality,’ the department will not accommodate your interdisciplinary interests.”

Although guilt by association can be misapplied, it is worth noting that some interdisciplinary studies are too often allied with the worst ideas in academia today.

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the “Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Studies Certificate” is an “interdisciplinary study” program. An interdisciplinary format also accommodates the program of Queer Studies at Wesleyan, leading students into erudite studies like “Queer Knights: Lancelot and Galehaut (FREN 232) and “Queer Kids” (AMST 295), where students are sure to catch the cinematic classic “Totally F*****-Up Boys.”

At George Mason University, Arts and Sciences Dean Daniele C. Struppa tries to explain interdisciplinarity by a series of increasingly detailed algebraic equations, spiced with passing references to Aristotle and Marcuse. This, no doubt, leaves some readers to conclude, “This is obviously important because it is so hard to explain.”

There is also professorial self-interest involved. Interdisciplinary programs give faculty the opportunity to escape from the more mundane cubicles of their own discipline and try something new and exciting. Suddenly the biology professor, known best by his irremediable waft of formaldehyde, gains a certain cachet and life is fun again—“I am a philosopher now!” he thinks as he lightly springs into the first day of “The Biological Origins of Human Sexuality: Myth and Meaning.” But what are the credentials for such an undertaking? And how do we justify a Professor of Russian at Truman State University teaching “The Aesthetics of Food”—other than his culinary interests? (“I have always liked caviar,” he explains in his syllabus.)

The problem with a lot of contemporary interdisciplinarity is that it is introduced too early in a student’s career. Most student’s don’t know where Qatar is located, much less how to integrate its place in the geopolitics of oil (past and present), democratic theory and the history of Islam.

Interdisciplinary teaching is often promoted because students reputedly need to be able to “integrate information.” They are, however, typically unable to integrate such far flung disciplines. So it must be integrated for them, sort of like cutting up Junior’s meat so he can eat it. Or better yet, when my kids were very young, we would buy food for them with ungodly names like “Ham and Green Pea Puree.” This brings up another student complaint about some “exciting” interdisciplinary classes: students often report that they are boring. Why? Perhaps because the student is too often simply a spectator since somebody else is doing the integrating for them.

A favorite class in many of these programs deals with “Global Perspectives.” The name may differ but the idea is essential the same. The course usually rests upon the (often unquestioned) premise that the top priority for students is “to learn about other cultures,” sometimes a code phrase for “you should be more critical of your own.”

Among many of the better students, such “global” classes are a quiet joke. The class curriculum is set by the whim of the instructor, since the globe is a pretty big place. Let’s see, is today cocaine in Columbia or mudslides in Indonesia? The “good” student is too often the one who has learned to anticipate the bias of the teacher and feed it back to him at appropriate junctures: to wax indignant at Spanish colonialism or to voice outrage at Wal Mart’s oppression of the working class. An insightful student mentioned recently that the trick in classes like these is learning “to emote correctly.”

At some universities, interdisciplinarity will become the new orthodoxy, the new proof of a “commitment to learning.” This will occur even before interdisciplinarity is defined—as Kafkaesque as this may seem. Careers are quickly being made in a growing assortment of interdisciplinary fiefdoms. As such life investments occur, faculty and administrators will be unable to objectively assess what has transpired because to be self-critical would be to threaten one’s respectability, if not one’s existence.

In such self-perpetuating deliberations, there may be little time to properly discuss the real stuff of education—Shakespeare, Aristotle, the French Revolution, Van Gogh, Beethoven, geometry theorems—not to mention writing a good sentence.

Of course, all of this may turn out to be a brilliant organizational scheme. And all 52 cards may fall back down in a neat row.

We should not forget that the French revolutionaries’ redesign of the months of the year didn’t last for long, no matter how exciting and innovative it seemed at the time.

What all this probably means is that at some point, when the impracticality and subjectivity of the new curriculum becomes as plain as the nose on your face, someone will have to pick up all the cards and organize them again, probably by arranging them much as they’ve always been arranged, back in a deck. And a great deal of time will have been lost in the process, time that could have been spent working within the framework of the disciplines, refining, updating, innovating and thus improving them for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, some of the respect that the university should expect from its own students will be lost. (or should we say, “is being lost.”) In twenty-four years of teaching, if there is one thing I’ve learned about smart students, it is this: they’re not stupid.