NU education missing mark?

The headline for yesterday’s lead article on, “How to Save the American University” refers to a seemingly never-ending debate occurring at universities country-wide: What subjects deserve to be part of a school’s curriculum. For the article, Slate consulted a variety of academics who posited numerous suggestions ranging from the predictable (get back to the classics!) to the borderline inane (disabilities studies!).

The most effective suggestion came from Allison Gopnik, a Berkeley psychology professor who wrote that universities should stress problem-solving and do away with rote memorization as much as possible. Proper critical thinking and analytical skills are cultivated best when students are required to learn actively. Or, as Gopnik put it, “What would French cooking be like if aspiring chefs never cracked an egg till after they had listened to four years of lectures about egg-cracking?”

Gopnik realizes what others frequently don’t – it’s not necessarily what you teach, but how you teach it. Northwestern often finds itself embroiled in debates over the academic merit of one subject or another. In recent memory both students and faculty alike have argued over the academic validity of an Asian-American studies program, an evolution minor and a Peace Studies major. Not to mention the never-ending battle over the worth of distribution requirements. While all of these subjects merit debate, there are basic pedagogical issues pervading nearly all aspects of our undergraduate education that frequently get overlooked.

Any undergraduate course or major, regardless of discipline, must be created and taught with an eye towards cultivating strong critical thinking in students. Broadly put, critical thinking requires students to evaluate competing claims and to formulate their own. We are hard-pressed to think of a subject that cannot be taught with this in mind. But while we assume that most professors and administrators agree with us, more than a few classes are not taught this way.

We propose the creation of an independent committee led jointly by students and faculty that can systematically evaluate teaching methods and provide suggestions when necessary. When students are able to get an A by repeating professors’ lectures verbatim, or mindlessly memorizing a page of facts the night before a midterm only to forget them a moment later, a comprehensive “pedagogical review” is long overdue.

A course such as “Diversity of Life,” that glimmering paradigm of a Weinberg gut course, epitomizes the kind of teaching method that NU would be better without: Three multiple choice exams testing students’ ability to memorize random bits of biology that they’re doomed to forget minutes after the exam. Why not throw a two-page paper somewhere in the mix that asks students to explicate some aspect of the course in greater detail. Sure, it’s nice to know how X species relates to Y, but isn’t it better to evaluate why and how that’s the case? We don’t mean to pick on “Diversity,” hundreds of courses could have been chosen to illustrate our point.

The Searle Center For Teaching Excellence provides teaching advice for professors who seek their services. But often the professors who need the most help are those who are reluctant to seek it out. Some are simply unaware. Some are more concerned with research than teaching. But quality teaching shouldn’t be mutually exclusive with quality research.

Of course learning and, yes, memorizing background information is important, particularly in the hard sciences, engineering and language. But often the facts needlessly trump an emphasis on cultivating strong critical thinking and analytical skills.

The hard truth is that, unlike critical thinking, the ability to memorize facts is simply not a skill that will generally be valuable outside the classroom. Education is what students are left with when they’ve forgotten all the facts.

An independent committee needs to determine whether students are leaving with enough.