Monday, January 08, 2007

Phallus 101

"I got an A in Phallus 101." That's the provocative title of Charlotte Allen's piece in the LA Times on absurd college courses, based on the Young America Foundation's recently released list of the "dirty dozen" most bizarre class offerings.

Now, a course titled "Phallus" is pretty ridiculous. And I'm no fan of the faddish, politically correct drivel that fills course lists -- hell, I'm a math major! But I must say that Allen's article is pretty weak gruel. It exposes a set of biases no less ridiculous than the runaway academics she seeks to pillory.

This is particularly revealing:

"The bigger problem is that too much of American higher education has lost any notion of what its students ought to know about the ideas and people and movements that created the civilization in which they live: Who Plato was or what happened at Appomattox."

But... why is it so important to know about Plato? I've read some of his work: it's poorly argued, poorly executed, and poorly written. Beyond knowing the history of Western philosophy (and I can name literally dozens of subjects more important than that), there's just no reason to study the inept musings of ancient Greeks. Yet Allen doesn't even understand that there's a legitimate dispute here -- she offers nothing, save boilerplate homages to the classical canon.

She continues with the same tired approach:

"Why not take a course in "The Phallus"?

You can get the same credit for it as for a course in Greek tragedy."

Greek Tragedy? Come on! What utility does that have? I happen to believe that my education shouldn't be governed by a fetishistic love for ancient mediocrity. This stuff belongs in the same category as "The Phallus."

Meanwhile, either the Young America Foundation (a conservative hack group) didn't try very hard, or college courses today aren't quite as ridiculous as it would like to think. Take a look at this entry on its list:

11. "American Dreams/American Realities"

Duke University. Part of Duke's Hart Leadership Program that prepares students for public service, this history course looks at American myths, from "city on the hill" to "foreign devil," in shaping American history.

This sounds like a reasonable approach to me. American myths have played an important role in the formation of our country, and if you're going to study public service, they're a good topic to consider. Did the Young America people scour the country and find nothing funnier? If so, that's pretty revealing.

Now, I agree that serious flaws exist in today's academy, but we shouldn't revert to the conservative focus on a narrow slice of Western culture. After all, it was precisely that absurdity -- the unequestioned focus on a few "classic" topics -- that caused the reforms and overreactions we see today.

So here's my modest proposition: when designing a core curriculum, why not require topics that are actually, um, "core" to understanding the world? Statistics? Geography? Hard science? These are what students really need, not some dinosaur's assessment that college education is incomplete without Shakespeare.

And the next time that some pseudo-intellectual taunts students for their failure to read Aristotle (or, really, to give a damn), I'll have a question waiting: which three greenhouse gases hold the greatest potential to cause warming over the coming century? You'd think this should be obvious, but my limited experiments with the query suggest otherwise. I wish the Young America crowd good luck.

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