Column: Adopt four-by-four

This year, a GW task force is again exploring the viability of a four-course, four-credit undergraduate curriculum. This so-called “four-by-four” system was previously shot down when faculty rejected it in tandem with a mandatory summer session. As a stand-alone proposal, though, it deserves thorough reconsideration. Adoption of a four-by-four system could become the most enduring commitment to academic excellence undertaken by this university.

The administration has presented a four-by-four system as a method of shoring up the University’s finances. It will never work, however, if it is merely a cost-cutting proposal. It will not work with reducing class time; it will not work with faculty lay-offs. Its approval should come because of its academic, not financial, dividends. It should only be looked at as a bonus if it saves the University money in the long run.

The best case for a four-by-four system is that it is a more educationally sound method of teaching undergraduates than a three-by-five system. In the previous debate, many faculty members balked at this claim in the spirit of not fixing what isn’t broken. An examination of three-by-five, however, will reveal that our current system is far from optimally functional.

A near-universal complaint among students is that we’re required to be in too many places at once, mentally as well as physically. Jobs, internships and extracurricular activities divert our attention from courses – and nowhere are students more diverted than at GW.

It may not be unreasonable to expect students to balance five classes with overcrowded schedules, but it is unrealistic. Even our most serious students hastily plough through academic work. The knowledge a student takes from the individual three-credit class is, dare I say, questionable.

The solution is not, in the vein of grade inflation, a lessening of standards. Rather, the solution is to tighten five unrelated courses into four interconnected ones. Instead of reducing the student’s workload, it would be far more constructive to sharpen the student’s focus. Students should not come to view their classes as an amalgam of subjects but rather as a concerted, unified inquiry.

Some faculty members have argued that a four-by-four system is a mere compromise of breadth for depth, but this is to ignore the paradigm shift four-by-four would employ. New courses would justify themselves by incorporating interdisciplinary connections and more intensive writing assignments. Progression to the major would be more systematic than it currently is, reinforcing that education is a comprehensive enterprise where previous knowledge is expanded upon; it is neither a random sampling of courses nor an amassing of trivia.

If a four-by-four system is approved, it is inevitable that some sacred cows will have to go.

Special topics, which are popular for their “lighter” content, will have to represent an important contribution to a student’s education. They could no longer be elected as shortcuts around mastery of the one’s field.

Also, double-majoring, which only gives the illusion that a student has learned more, would have to suffer a demotion. A frequent objection to four-by-four is that it makes a double major more difficult. This is true. A four-by-four system would openly question the wisdom of a student limiting himself to two subjects for the sole purposes of transcript acrobatics.

Conversion to four-by-four will not be easy. It will require a re-imagining of general curriculum requirements, new syllabi, new assignments and new standards. Faculty will need to resist the impulse to teach the same three-credit class under a new four-credit banner. Administrators must realize that four-credit classes will necessitate four-credit timeslots; retaining the three-credit timeslots would bankrupt the endeavor.

But we should not use the challenges as rationale for rejection. In this case, as in all cases, the long-term interests of students must trump the short-term interests of faculty.

Four-by-four could be a much-needed spark for GW, a university struggling to forever free itself from mediocrity. It would ask students and faculty alike to heighten their game. It would bring a new seriousness to a classroom experience that in some areas has grown too slack.

As a student, I don’t simply want harder classes – I want smarter ones.

-The writer is a sophomore majoring in English.

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