Any person.
Any study.
Any Cornelliana.

An alumni
blog about Ezra's
University. (more)


Suggestions? Tips?




[+] Cornell News

[+] Higher Ed News

[+] Campus Pubs

[+] Alumni Interest

[+] Diversions

[+] Blogs

[+] Sports

[+] Other Places


[+] By Month

[+] By Author

January 2012

Defending the Relevance of Cornell's Curriculum

In a brave column in last week's Daily Sun, A & S senior Harry DiFrancesco accused "Cornellís currently deadeningly dusty distribution requirements" of failing to prepare students for the challenges of the modern workforce:
Strikingly, though, these requirements focus on broad subject areas and, therefore, content, a decidedly last-century approach. If there is one thing most educators and futurists agree on, it is that the new economy will be based on skills rather than factual knowledge.

DiFrancesco's ideas reflect one of the contemporary critiques of the American education system. Some observers argue that we are wasting too much time teaching students basic facts instead of building critical thinking and analysis skills. Certainly, in this era of Google, it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend hours teaching students information that they could look up in a matter of seconds. Readers will think back to their childhood days of memorizing significant dates, quotations, or even equations. One could argue that none of these facts need be committed to memory in today's information age.

The battlegrounds for new ideas in education tend to be underperforming urban schools, including the one at which I teach. In our effort to raise test scores, we place an extreme, school-wide emphasis on developing higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, critique, interpretation, prediction, and design. In fact, teachers are permitted to use no more than 90 minutes of class time each week to present new material. Over the last three days of the week, students and teachers ignore the basic facts and spend time developing higher-level skills.

Such an approach is aligned with what DiFrancesco desires for Cornell. In his view, instead of wasting time learning about "sprawling" areas of academia, we should train students to look at data or other already-produced information and make sense of it.

The problem, though, is that the higher-level mental connections that make DiFrancesco and others salivate are not possible without a solid foundation of lower-level information. My AP World History students have trouble naming two facts about Alexander the Great. But, if I present them with a list of information about Alexander, they can write a paragraph evaluating his greatness, or comparing him to someone they know, or critiquing his achievements.

The danger is that I could present my students with a list of lies about Alexander ("invented the DVD") and they would probably believe them and go ahead writing their analysis paragraphs about how we should thank Alexander every time we watch Netflix. As one commenter on the Sun website pointed out, in this age of misinformation, students must be equipped with enough solid factual knowledge to identify falsehoods.

There is also the obvious horror that students will have taken a whole year of AP World History without learning two facts about Alexander.

I credit my Cornell education with helping me to make sense of the world around me. I do not rely on analysis skills exclusively, but rather a nuanced understanding of the past and present of people, institutions, and ideas. Perhaps it is not necessary for me to have memorized precise statistics about the incarceration rate, or specific details about laws dealing with weapons or drugs. But knowing this information helps me understand the challenges facing my students and their families in a way that searching on Wikipedia for the same information could not.

There is a middle ground in this debate, in which teachers (as too many do) are no longer assigning students useless low-level book work, but experts and administrators recognize that a certain amount of lower-level knowledge is necessary to enable students to make higher-level connections.

(DiFrancesco also pleads for more group work; I'll let the Times debunk that one. If that article is not enough, I invite you to observe my students as they work in groups.)

Cornell professors do not live in a bubble, and I have faith that they understand the kinds of skills that will best prepare students for success in the future. Skills and factual knowledge are wonderfully intertwined; together, they make up an education that would make Ezra proud.

Elie Bilmes | January 28, 2012 (#)

Cornell is a Bubble

Cornell is a bubble.

We all know this and we all say it. But, we donít really feel it until we leave our alma mater.

When in Ithaca, everything in Ithaca is of utmost importance. IFC decisions were endlessly critiqued and debated. The Student Assembly Finance Committeeís rulings on funding Ė or non-funding Ė of student groups were protested at Student Assembly meetings. The pressure of overcommitted calendars and upcoming deadlines were all-consuming, and anything outside of the small box of work and more work felt as though it didnít matter. And, to many of us, nothing else did really matter. Cornell and the greater Ithaca were at the center of our world. Rather, they were our world.

I realized this morning, while reading the Cornell Daily Sun looking for a topic on which to write, how Iíve escaped the bubble that is life on the Hill. Now that Iím eight months out, I no longer have much of an opinion on many of the day-to-day issues that seemed of paramount importance to us as students. As a case in point, among the headlines over the past two days are Collegetown drinking (surprise?), liquor license difficulties at the Willard Straight Pub (itís being named The Bearís Den?), GreenStar Groceryís plans to open a Collegetown location (it sells organic food!), and the increase in Rush Week attendance (reassuring for the Greek communityís viability given the recent changes in Rush Week). To be complete, there were some general news stories that could be found in any community newspaper, like a sledding accident on Libe Slope (I hope the student will be okay), Senator Mark Kirk Ď81ís stroke recovery (he will be okay), and the death of Professor Richard Leed í58 (unfortunately he wonít be okay). To students, itís the articles in that first bucket that would likely be the most important and discussed over lunch. Now, Iím much more interested in whatís happening on the national political stage than the latest issues in the non-existent microcosm of my New York City neighborhood.

Although as alumni we are far removed from the bubble, there are still important and just plain interesting Cornell issues to think about from a different perspective. I may not have an opinion on this yearís rush week, but I still care about the direction of the Greek system. And, while it doesnít matter that a new grocery store is opening, I do not want to see the general vibe of Collegetown change. I imagine many alumni feel the same way. After all, you are reading this blog.

Kyle Scott | January 24, 2012 (#)

Happy Founder's Day

In celebration Ezra Cornell's 205th birthday, today is Founderís Day.


Ezra Cornell founded the university using his own background as a model for the type of education his school would provide. A carpenter, mechanic, farmer, salesman, inventor, entrepreneur, politician, trustee, and philanthropist, as well as a Quaker who left his religion to marry a Methodist, Ezra Cornell is a perfect embodiment of ďAny PersonÖAny Study.Ē Of course, that is his own motto.

Now, in 2012, with the sesquicentennial right around the corner, Ezra would have likely added ďAny PlaceĒ to his idea of a Cornell education. This would have been preposterous in his time. However, today, not only is there a Cooperative Extension program in each New York State county, but also there is a Cornell footprint in New York City, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, Rome, and Doha, Qatar. That New York City footprint is about to get even larger with the upcoming construction of the New York City Tech Campus.

Happy Birthday, Ezra.

Kyle Scott | January 11, 2012 (#)

Other Recent Posts

-- WSJ: Cornell Wins NYC Tech Campus Bid (EBilmes)

-- Barrier Update: City Approves Nets (DJost)

-- Big Red Cymbal Guy (Nagowski)

-- New York Times Survey on Campus Recruiting is Flawed (KScott)

-- Barrier Update: Legal precedent suggests City of Ithaca will not be held liable for gorge suicide (DJost)

-- Despite MSG Loss, Big Potential for Big Red Hockey (EBilmes)

-- City Council Will Vote on Suicide Nets (DJost)

-- An Encounter on the Upper East Side (Nagowski)

-- Showing Off Your School Spirit (Nagowski)

-- Chipotle Ithaca? (KScott)

-- Cornell at the ING NYC Marathon (KScott)

-- Crossing Over a Fine Line: Commercial Activity on Campus (KScott)

-- Milstein's Downfall (Nagowski)

-- Can any Cornell-associated organization really be independent of the University? (Nagowski)

-- Slope Media Revisited (EBilmes)

-- Slope Media Group Approved for Byline Funding (KScott)

-- Occupy AEM? (KScott)

-- New campus pub to be good for both Greeks and non-Greeks (Nagowski)

-- Gagging the Election (Nagowski)

-- The Changing Structure of Rush Week (Nagowski)

-- Ivy League Humility in the Midwest (EBilmes)

-- Of Median Grades and Economics Minors (Nagowski)

-- Homecoming Recap (Nagowski)

-- My Cornell Bookshelf (Nagowski)

-- The Sun's Opinion Section Has Suddenly Gotten Good (Nagowski)

-- Remembering the 11th (Nagowski)

-- Cornellian Tapped as Top Economic Advisor (Nagowski)

-- Cutting Pledging, and the Good Which Comes With It (EBilmes)

-- Why Cornell Should Not Close Fall Creek Gorge (Nagowski)

-- Welcome to the Class of 2015 (Nagowski)