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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 | Posted on January 28, 2012 (#)

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