Friday, June 16, 2006

College graduates for change, but can't give it 

Living in a town with a big college means you often find students working in the restaurants, retail shops and convenience stores. If you're like me -- a guy reaching fifty who occasionally looks at a slide rule and tries to remember how he used it -- you get a little perturbed with store clerks who look lost when the cash register can't tell them how much change to give. The whole ability to do the subtraction in their heads is lost. I usually will tell them what to return me in change (once the young man said I was wrong and I asked what he thought the answer was; he said "I don't know, but it feels like too much." "Math is not a feeling," I replied. I'm such a jerk.)

Such kids turn around and on the back of their t-shirts are quotes mouthed by liberal professors like Gandhi's "Live the change you want to see in the world."

I just want my change.

But it's little wonder. Many schools, it turns out, do not require their students to take math as a core subject to graduate from college. But most schools are recognizing that particular lacuna in general education and are beefing up their curricula. In a post reacting to Smith College's recent announcement that it was putting math back in its general education, ACTA issued a press release with this interesting paragraph.
...ACTA surveyed the Big 10, Big 12, Ivy League, Seven Sisters (including Smith), and several other major institutions and found that students could graduate without taking core subjects such as math, science, composition, literature, economics, American history or government. The schools were graded on the basis of their course requirements; Smith received an "F" since students currently can graduate without taking mathematics, literature, language, American government or history, economics, or science. For example, only 38 percent of the institutions surveyed required students to take a mathematics course, and not one required a course in economics.
Of course that last point caught my eye. I recently asked the research people in our administration for information on students who take our principles classes. We graduate about 600 students (of about 2200) who take principles. The course is required of business majors and naturally of economics majors (we're not in the business school here but rather in the College of Social Sciences.) But between the b-school and us were only about 400 graduates. You can take principles here for distribution credit in general education, but it isn't required. I find myself wondering what our contribution is to those students who took economics and didn't go into business or economics. I think it helps fulfill what Ben Rogge wrote in "The Promise of the College."
...a good college can say this: "We stand ready to confront you with a good faculty and a good group of fellow students. If you work at it (an important if) you will leave this place knowing more than when you entered it." That's it; that's all there is.
You'll be able to make change, know the difference between broccoli and spinach (a joke at the end of Rogge's address, which is my favorite commencement speech ever), and realize that none of us know enough to seize the Ring. Economics certainly can help with all three of those.