Mr. Know-it-all

    What does it mean to have a college degree? There is, or at least there used to be, the assumption that a college degree means that one not only has a degree of expertise in a given specialty, but that one has a certain amount of basic general knowledge. This is the idea behind the “general education" requirements that almost every college has, as well as specific programs like Portland State’s University Studies.

    But what is “basic knowledge?" Should an English major be able to give a brief definition of Keynesian economics? How proficient should a chemical engineer be in a foreign language? Should we label as “ignorant" a political science major who wouldn’t know a quadratic equation if it bit him on the asymptote? Would it violate the separation of church and state to expect a mathematician to have some passing familiarity with the Old Testament? How much credit should I get for being able to summarize the “Schrodinger’s cat" paradox if I can’t do simple equations necessary to actually explore quantum physics? Is it more important to know polymers or Proust?

    These thoughts grew from a discussion I had with a friend at Lewis & Clark College about the ignorance that many of our peers showed outside of their majors. My friend, a chemistry major, was, in her words, “terrified" at the lack of math and science knowledge she saw around her. She and I would come up with very different lists of what constitutes “basic knowledge." Each of us would likely fail on some areas of the other’s curriculum, though I suspect she would do better on mine than I would on hers. Specifics aside, we agreed on the importance of non-specialized knowledge and that too many people didn’t have enough of it.

    We also argued about the value of physical education requirements at the university level. Like so many of us in the humanities, I count PE among the banes of my teenage years. It seemed like the opposite of everything that school stood for, and I agree with one of my fellow gym-class misfits that what we got back then wasn’t even worthy of the word “education." It was “training" at best, and what it primarily trained us in was taking abuse from the brutes who had as much chance of going to college as I had of running a four-minute mile, or running any mile for that matter.

    My girlfriend graduated from Lewis & Clark, and I never get over the fact that a school that is sophisticated in so many ways has a PE requirement for all students. Granted, they have all sorts of options, including yoga, blues dancing and women’s self-defense, and the majority of L&C were probably tormented on a regular basis in high school PE anyway. She argued that it was important in keeping students healthy, as well as “keeping students from getting depressed and killing themselves." I can’t argue with the benefits of exercise. In a similar way, we can’t argue with the benefits of good nutrition, but it would be ludicrous to require students to take vitamins or fulfill some kind of basic fiber requirement. SATs and GPAs may be of dubious value in the educational system, but they’re more relevant than RDAs and EFAs.

    The PE requirement is rendered more absurd by the fact that students need only two PE classes in their four-year stint at the school. In theory, if one takes a class in basic composition or the history of Western civilization one’s freshman year, the knowledge gained will remain available and useful through the rest of one’s time in school, as well as serve as a foundation upon which one can learn all sorts of other things. Regular exercise promotes mental health and energy while one is doing it, but a senior is probably no less likely to sink into clinical depression because she took blues dancing as a freshman.

    This may seem like a silly digression, but it touches on an important issue. I think we can all agree that earning a college degree should signify that we have gained certain levels of knowledge in certain subjects, even if we all disagree on the precise benchmarks. But what is the shelf life of this knowledge? I took no mathematics as an undergraduate, and was exempted from some other requirements because of credits I was allowed to bring in from high school. So by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree, I had ostensibly achieved a certain level of proficiency in math, and there’s a chance I might have even lived up to my chemist friend’s idea of “basic knowledge" in the subject. I’m reasonably certain, however, that 95 percent – in other words almost two-thirds! – of the mathematics I stopped taking at age 17 had been completely flushed from my brain by the time I completed my bachelor’s degree at 24. (They always used to say that gum stayed in your stomach for seven years, and in my experience mathematical knowledge is much less resilient than Juicy Fruit.)

    How much should we expect education to stick with us? In other words, how much can we forget in the years after graduation before we have to say that education has failed us – or that we’ve failed it?