Kevan Duve: 4×4: Radical or conservative

A Faculty Senate four-by-four task force report recently labeled the new curriculum proposal “a solution looking for a problem.” Funny, since as a student, the problem has been obvious to me since I first cracked open the GW Bulletin.

Four-by-four is a solution to the problem of curricular incoherence and excess. The real reason four-by-four is being met with puzzlement or wariness is because the outcomes it seeks are quite unpopular both at GW and other universities.

Four-by-four would mean a tightening of the curriculum, which could not be more opposed to the guiding principle in higher education today: “teach anything.” Currently, there is no subject too piddling to be explored in a three-credit course.

Conversely, a successful implementation of a new class structure would force administrators to make that careful delineation between information and knowledge. Four-by-four is also meant to be a dramatic shake-up, an opportunity to clean house. It would ask us to rethink what a major is, what general curriculum requirements should be and how students ought to spend their time here. If we turn it into an attempt to dance around students’ internships and carefully guarded academic fiefdoms, it’s dead on arrival.

That said, I worry GW’s four-by-four proposal is too reliant on wishful thinking to implement its reforms. The most obvious mistake is the proposed reduction in overall class time, which makes the assumption that students will complete more work independently. A second assumption is that professors will diligently increase course requirements to justify the extra credit hour. My guess is that without oversight, many professors won’t change their courses an iota – though creating longer time-bands would certainly send the right hint.

There seems to be a preoccupation with discussing how four-by-four will affect students’ ability to intern, along with a subsequent debate over whether the University should be so actively encouraging its students to take jobs around the city.

Obviously, many students coming to Washington want to join the student workforce, but the degree to which interning has become an obsession is troubling. Educators cannot surrender their charge to K Street. What they can do is address the reasons why students are so disconnected from their classes that they’d rather spend more of their day at a photocopier.

I have a simple test for determining if a book I’m reading is good: while I am reading it, I don’t feel like I should be doing something else. In the end, this should be the model for how we provide education. As compelling as D.C. is, students receiving a first-class education should not feel like they ought to be somewhere else – the grunt work can wait for the summer or graduation.

Four-by-four, if anything, is a chance for proponents of serious education to put the case back in our favor. New courses that seek to establish the “relevance” of universities in 21st century society are not needed. We must rediscover great books and great ideas. We must demonstrate that we are here as a spiritual and intellectual repository, not only as career prep.

So many Americans lament that our social, political and business leaders are technically proficient yet emotionally and intellectually sterile, but we have the tools to change this. We still possess the texts – religious, philosophical, historical and literary – that have challenged and intrigued men and women for centuries. Admittedly, it’s not as sexy as a six-year BA/JD degree, but a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum has turned out quite few successful people who are (gasp!) happy with their lives.

If GW does opt for four-by-four in the coming months, it will be less a story of reckless change than one of getting back to what is tried-and-true: a conservative ideal, misconstrued by academe as a radical one.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

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