Skip to main content

Two cultures, revisited

Topics/tags: Rants, short, higher ed

During spring break, I took Youngest Son to visit a variety of types of colleges so that he could start to think about what kind of college might be best for him. One of them is what I might call a science-focused school [1]. During the Q&A session for prospective students, someone asked about the offerings in studio art. I found the response disappointing and it reminded me about the gap between schools in which disciplines understand each other and those that don’t.

What was the response? There were two parts. The first was something like We have an Art House that hosts weekly get-togethers where people spend a few hours making art. I think they did screen printing recently. The second part was something like Oh and we have a number of walls on which students are allowed to paint murals. Come to think of it, there was a third part, too, but it was even worse than the first two parts.

Why am I troubled by the response? Certainly, it’s cool that there’s an Art House and it’s equally cool that students are permitted to make public art, perhaps even encouraged to make public art. However, the responses tell me a lot about the culture of the school.

I would never presume that the opportunity to make art was the same as the opportunity to take a real studio art class. A good studio class has assignments that challenge you to think in new ways and develop new skills, provides you with feedback through both faculty and peer critiques, and exposes you to the work of other artists to help you expand your ways of thinking. A community of casual artists and opportunities to make art can give you some of those things. However, it’s unlikely to be of the same level of experience that you get in a studio course.

What really disappointments is that the form of the answers suggested to me that those answering really didn’t understand the difference. It feels to me the same as someone saying We don’t have CS classes, but there are students who write iPhone apps or We don’t have Math classes, but there are students who like to do Sudoko puzzles together or We don’t have Chemistry classes, but there’s a house where they run a science fair where students make foam volcanoes or We don’t have any classes in English, but some students get together each week to read novels or We don’t have foreign language classes, but we have language tables [2] or We don’t teach economics, but people read the Wall Street Journal or …. Yeah, I think I’ve gone off the rails in trying to make my point. Maybe I’m just easily offended.

Still, it saddens me that folks in higher education would not understand the value or power of courses in disciplines different than their own. I’m glad I’m at Grinnell. I would not assume that all of us know or understand everything that happens in our colleagues’ classes, but we all know that there’s a value to those classes that cannot easily be achieved in other ways.

Would faculty from that institution critique some aspects of Grinnell? Possibly. Strike that. Almost certainly. The individually advised curriculum may seem strange from the outside. I would expect that they would be puzzled or upset we do not require any core set of science and math.

But I’d choose Grinnell’s approach any day.

[1] No, it was not Harvey Mudd.

[2] There’s nothing wrong with language tables; they can be great. But they don’t provide the same level of language, culture, and literature that a typical foreign language class provides.

Version 1.0 of 2018-04-06.