By Art Sandler


The Broadside (Webster College Newspaper)

February 22, 1972, pages 2-3.

In 1892 James Naismith invented basketball. He hung two peach baskets from the balcony of a gymnasium, flipped a ball to a group of waiting men, and said: "play." That was enough to determine the nature of the game; it had a logic of its own.

First, you take the bottoms out of the baskets so you don't have to climb up to the balcony whenever someone scores. Next you put restraints on the defense, penalizing infractions with free throws, to enable the spectator to distinguish the ensuing action from simple brawling.

Then you introduce artificial means of moving the ball, dribbling and passing, to balance the restraints on the defense and making scoring more difficult.

I could go on and on.

I want to maintain that colleges as we know them, granting certain key assumptions, likewise have an inherent logic; that we should not simultaneously grant these assumptions; and that we suffer for having done so.

These assumptions are:

  1. That Colleges ought to certify people as literate. This, I take it, is why we grant degrees.
  2. That colleges ought to certify only those who are more or less competent in some field. This is why we demand a major.
  3. That all those who spend the better part of four years satisfying faculty that they have earned some small but definite fraction - say, 3/128 - of the degree, are literate.
  4. That only those who spend the better part of four years satisfying faculty that they have earned some small but definite fraction of the degree are literate. This is why we don't give degrees to people who never went to school here, even if they could convince us they could do differential equations and understand Finnigan's Wake, and play Hamlet basketball and the piano with great and equal skill.

I BELIEVE that (1) is true. Given the social importance of a college degree and the cost of a college education people won't come to a college unless it grants degrees. What's more the degrees ought to be taken seriously. Literacy is a good thing and college degrees ought not be giver for less. More on what I mean by literacy later.

Hence the viciousness of the falsity of (3) and (4). If you determine literacy by performance in one exam, why demand the rest for certification? If you can't does it make sense to give what is in effect, 3/128 of the degree?

Yet the belief in (3) and (4) insures that the bulk of both the faculty and student effort go into enterprises that one can assign credits to. Since assigning credits only make sense with reference to a standard - and since fractions of literacy isn't a meaningful standard - the ordinary 3-hour course gets taken as the standard, the norm; I believe that's a mistake that inhibits a great deal of useful activity and multiplies boredom beyond necessity.

GENERAL CURRICULUM requirements, and requirements for the major have been thought to provide a rebuttal to "that sort of objection. The imposition of the various skills (e.g. mathematical and linguistic skills) that make up what I term "literacy." We've abandoned that as failing in its purpose and detrimental in other ways. [Corbett adds a note in 2000: at this time in 1972 Webster College had no general degree requirements.]

We cling to the notion of a major as providing a greater challenge and so testing literacy. It's better than 128 credits as a test but not very good. I've known mathematicians who can't read, poets who can't talk, musicians who can't write and philosophers who can't go to their left.

If it's not an adequate test of literacy, the major requirements should be dropped. It's not the job of colleges to produce musicians mathematicians, philosophers and poets - but people who can become those things.

WE PAY A PRICE for demanding a major. We have departments, which tend to make demands on both students and faculty to remain within departments even when their natural course is to step outside. Students entering the Liberal Arts program [another Corbett interjection: this was an individualized way to avoid having a major] must justify this departure from the norm and faculty doing inter-disciplinary work frequently do it as an overload.

One way out of these difficulties (and into another, but I think lesser set of difficulties) is to separate the educating and certifying functions of the college as much as we can and charge separately for use of the college - access to faculty, library labs - and testing for literacy.

THE GREATEST difficulty, as I see it, will be defining literacy and designing tests of it. What follows is an attempt at the former:

  1. The ability to articulate a moderately complex position.
  2. The ability to master a moderately complex text.
  3. The ability to write, say 10 pages, on some subject in clear an coherent fashion.
  4. The ability in some area to evaluate conclusions as reasonable or not, in light of available evidence.
  5. The ability, in some area, to dig up evidence.

I think all of these are testable.

My Philosophy Page Webster U. Philosophy Department

Philosophy for Children Critical Thinking Current Semester Education Existentialism
Miscellaneous Topics Moral Philosophy Peace Issues Voluntary Economic Simplicity


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu