Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Department of Bad Ideas is now offering a course on its greatest hits

The Crimson reports that there will be a new freshman seminar option this fall variously called "Big Ideas" and "Great Big Ideas" (a confusion which is actually not the paper's fault since the course site also uses both names). The course will consist of videos of professors lecturing about their field paired with the sparsest of readings (often of the professor's own work). The purpose of this course is largely unknown, since all the descriptions of it available consist entirely of educational buzzwords. According to the Crimson,
"One of the goals of Great Big Ideas," Hopkins said, is to expose new students to as many different areas of knowledge as possible, helping them connect relevant ideas from multiple disciplines and guiding them in their own decisions about future academic paths...This is a course for everybody...To do one thing well, you need to be able to connect the dots between disciplines, see the big picture, and understand how seemingly different concepts relate to each other. You need to have a diverse toolkit to confront challenges that are out there.”
"Expose" "Areas of knowledge" "Relevant ideas" "Multiple disciplines" "Academic paths" "Connect the dots" "Big picture" "Diverse toolkit" "Confront challenges"-- Are you wondering what the actual content of this course might be? If so, perhaps you will be enlightened by the description included on the syllabus [requires university login]:
This course serves up a mezze-plate introduction to the world’s most important ideas and disciplines. It is the conceit of this course that there are precious few important ideas that have relevance beyond their specific disciplines, but it is these very ideas that comprise the sine qua non of a modern education. A wide range of subjects will be covered including Psychology, Economics, Biomedical Research, Linguistics, History, Physics, Politics, Statistics and more. Within each topic, we will discuss the most current, innovative ideas in the field, dissect them, and look at how they impact not only the world-at-large, but our own lives as well. How does Demography predict our planet’s future? How is Linguistics a window to understanding the brain? Each of these lectures will be presented by top experts from top institutions around the country, and will be delivered via the Internet. The course is designed to give students an introduction to a variety of concentrations in a way that allows them to explore unfamiliar territory and ask leading questions, and look at different subjects in a new light, before choosing any predetermined field of concentration.
Oh, did that not clarify anything? Maybe what you're failing to grasp is that this course is about Everything, or the subset of Everything known as Every New and Hip Thing, and so has no specific content? Let's look at the weekly assignments and see:

The first week will be an overview of the syllabus itself. This is understandable because the syllabus is 12 pages, four of which contain the biographies and color photos of the professors in the videos.

The second week is called "The Classics," and the topic of the video lecture is, "Contemporizing the Classics: Why Homer, Plato and Dante Still matter in the Modern World." You might imagine that this session will include readings from--at least--Homer, Plato, and Dante. But, no. Instead, some chapters of How to Read a Book and Education's End--a recent pop lament of the decline of the liberal arts--are assigned, as well as evidently the entirety of that ageless classic, All Things Shining, which came out about two weeks ago and is reviewed here. So I guess after this session, students will be "exposed" to all the "relevant areas of knowledge" in literature and will have "connected the dots" to see the "bigger picture" of the entire history of Western literature, and will be sufficiently equipped with the requisite "diverse toolkit" to determine whether an English major ought to be their "academic path," right?

The rest of the syllabus proceeds in much this way, the only difference being that most of the other sessions assign readings from the latest works of the professor featured in that week's video lecture, some newspaper or magazine articles, or a single chapter of a random textbook in the field being "exposed"--economics, statistics, etc. The reading is on the nonexistent side of light, which I suppose is reasonable since these ideas are either "big" or "great big," and in either case, obviously expansive enough to warrant a week's dedication to their contemplation unencumbered by such distractions as "books." The week dedicated to philosophy has the most extensive requirements, listing the readings to be discussed as:
Thomas Hobbes, Selections from Leviathan
• Book I, chapter XIII, paragraphs 1-14
• Book I, chapter XIV, paragraphs 1-5
• Book II, chapter XVII, paragraphs 1-15
Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia
• (Optional) Preface, entire (pp. ix-xiv)
• Chapter 7, Introduction (pp. 149-150)
• Chapter 7, Section I, up to “Sen’s Argument” (pp. 150-164)
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
• Chapter I, opening paragraph (pp. 3)
• Chapter I, section 1, paragraphs 1-2 (pp. 3-4)
• Chapter I, section 2, paragraph 1 (p. 7)
• Chapter I, section 3, paragraphs 1-8 (pp. 11-16)
• Chapter I, section 4, entire (pp. 17-22)
• Chapter II, section 11, entire (pp. 60-65)
Given that this is a course on Great Big Ideas, this may seem like a Great Big Lot of reading, but look closer, and you'll realize that it's fewer than 50 pages in total. So no worries, freshmen, nothing is easier than learning Everything!

UPDATE: This absurdity has a website, which sports their logo, which doubles as their message to students--F U.


Withywindle said...

It took Harvard a long time to adopt a core curriculum...

Flavia said...

They had me at "mezze-plate."

Miss Self-Important said...

Withy: And the wait was well worth it.

Flavia: But wouldn't you really call it more of a tapas selection?

Withywindle said...

Oh, God, I missed that. "Smorgasbord" doesn't have enough intellectual heft? "Thinky Tapas" is too alliterative? 'Western Civ Rijstaffel" is too Dutch?

The word verification is "hutskin", which seems more yurtish than yusual.

Flavia said...

If there's no potato tortilla, it's not tapas.