I’d like to talk about that today. I don’t usually talk about my philosophical view of teaching, even privately. One of my mentors in academia has actually complimented me on how practical my teaching statements are written, detailing precisely what activities and tasks would be involved in particular courses. But I don’t believe we can do anything well without a strong theoretical foundation for structuring how we should move forward, so here it is. Here’s my theory.
First, I’m going to preface all of this by saying this is entirely just my viewpoint on the subject. I’m an academic, but I am poorly read on philosophy of education, or the larger end-goals of education, or the historical purpose of secondary education. That is probably pretty typical for most scientists. Also, my perception of college and its apparent goals is strongly colored by my observation of American universities. So, I might be a little off my rocker here, and I apologize if anyone with actual background in those areas reads this and shakes their head sadly. That’s fine, and if so, let me know what you know that shows maybe there is some other intention designed into our college system. I’ll also more or less use ‘university’ and ‘college’ interchangeably, which might annoy some who see a very clear distinction.
What I’ll say here largely comes from my own thinking, discussion with others and two sources, both of which I was first exposed to as a graduate student in an education seminar at the University of Chicago:
Booker, H. G. 1963. University Education and Applied Science. Science 141(3580):486-576.
Richter, F. 1991. Geology and the university. Geotimes 36(9):5.
They aren’t very long reads; if you can’t get these and want a copy, please contact me. Another thought-provoking read that I encountered later, which expresses somewhat opposing arguments, is:
Crow, M. M. 2012. Citizen science U: The best way to teach today's hyperconnected students is to get rid of the departments of geology and biology. Scientific American 307(4):48-49.
So, let’s cover the ‘typical’ answers to the question of why a paleontologist needs calculus. Well, the most immediately proximal causation, and least helpful answer, is that that’s how modern universities work: you have ‘common’ or ‘general’ education requirements you need to fulfill for any major or specialty. Some are for any student enrolled at all, while some are for certain degrees, like how geology Bachelor degrees often require calculus in addition to ‘general’ requirements. Ultimately, students are effectively required to take classes from nearly every broad area of education in the college. You don’t have to be extremely shrewd or know much about how financial matters are solved ‘behind the scenes’ at a university to know that this is very financially convenient for certain departments, especially those with small numbers of students actually majoring in that field. It is also very convenient for graduate students in those departments, as it means there are teaching assistantships available for graduate students associated with those classes, and thus they can have financial support while they get their degree.
But there’s better answers than this. If nothing else, we can reject this simple answer because if a student was only fulfilling general course requirements for the university’s financial gain, then (a) the courses required would be completely random, when generally a very similar set of course requirements exists across all universities, and (b) whether you actually took these courses, or your performance in them, wouldn’t be of concern to most graduate degrees admissions committees, when generally, they are actually quite important (if sometimes of less consideration than other qualities as an indicator of future success).
The most common rationale I see given to this line of questioning is to attempt to find some specific reason why that specific course is somehow related to the actual field. And, sure, there are plenty of application of calculus in paleontology, mainly related to biomechanics issues. There’s also plenty of engineering literature in French. But these are corner cases: the vast majority of paleontologists never do any calculus. There’s lots of math in paleontology today, and I would recommend anyone in the natural sciences (paleontology, geology, biology) to be familiar with univariate and multivariate statistics at a bare minimum. Now, I work with math and quantitative analysis much more often than most paleontologists, and even I handed off the one derivation I’ve encountered in my work to a statistician colleague, rather than do it myself. In general, you will be hard pressed to show how anyone found specific uses for every single general requirement class they took in college. And, to be honest, I doubt that many non-engineering students retain the knowledge and capability to derive and integrate for more than a year or two after passing Calculus, anyway. At this point, I only vaguely remember how to integrate. So, if the goal is that students should gain and retain specific skills for future use, the system doesn't seem optimal for that.
One answer I see given infrequently given is that a student takes such classes to 'broaden' themselves; that may be infrequently given because it sounds like a line from a university propaganda pamphlet. But no one seems to know what that means. I’d argue that the best reason is precisely this ‘broadening’, but we need to be able to explain what that is. How does ‘broadening’ aid in our professional development?
The answer is that secondary education has *nothing* to do with your professional development: getting a job and getting a college degree are at cross purposes. Booker (1963) and Richter (1990) argue, collectively, that secondary education is ultimately about developing yourself as an individual. You take courses in a subject area to expose yourself to the particular mode of thinking applied by that subject area. Every subject area in a liberal arts college is ultimately a different approach to addressing some set of questions. Why does a student take a basic English class? To learn how comparative analysis of literature and writing can be used to address issues. Why does a student take French? To be exposed to how the vocabulary of another language works, and the basic concept that the language you use can make it easier (or harder) to communicate and express certain thoughts.
Why does a student take a basic geology class? To learn how geologists approach scientific questions about the earth’s history and environment, and that of other planets. Think about it: one of the most common topics in an introductory geology class is training students to understand and appreciate the magnitude of the geological timescale. Dealing with time and spatial scales that are much larger than those we interact with daily is part of the mental toolbox of a geologist. Taking an introductory geology course exposes you to this toolbox, and allows you to add those tools to how *you* go forward and approach problems. While I imagine that many of those who have taken an introductory geology class do not recall the names of the geologic periods or their exact order, hopefully what they do retain is a lasting impression of the immensity of time in earth history.
And that’s really what I think college is: building a mental toolbox that helps you see how to approach problems. They could be problems you encounter in your work, your personal life, your hobbies, whatever! And the key to getting that toolbox is being exposed to a diverse array of fields of study and gaining those important conceptual insights and perspectives unique to those disciplines. So, why does a paleontologist need calculus? So that they comprehend concepts like the relationship among successive derivatives of a given function, the relationship of derivatives to the concept of the area under a curve defined by a function, etc.
And, I think, that many students who get through a calculus sequence gain that conceptual understanding for the long-term. In my opinion, college classes generally succeed at the unstated goal of broadening the perspective of students. However, I don’t think this is entirely intentional on the part of the educators. First, I should state the caveat that many college educators give considerably more time and effort to the art of education than public perception gives them due for, and I think many give a great deal of consideration to understanding what the ultimate goal of education is. I think the stereotype of the professor who treats teaching as a burden to be avoided at all costs mainly results from the fact the majority of time spent ‘teaching’ isn’t contact hours (i.e. time spent lecturing or managing a lab session) but rather the many hours spent outside of the classroom preparing lectures, assignments, exams and grading. However, teaching is hard work, and I think it is not uncommon to lose sight of what the greater goal is of course work. Being actively cognizant of such a goal, and the need for the course to transmit a new way of thinking to the students, and actively working toward that is a difficult mental task to juggle, and so I think many do not actively think about this when making course materials, because often, just making course materials at all is a high enough bar. Thus, my perception (flavored mainly by my state school undergraduate education) is that the end result of this is that many college educators do not think of their role in terms of exposing students to different lines of investigation, or any similar goal. Thankfully, the nature of the college system seems to counteract the need for active recognition of the end result, because that end-result is hard-wired in the system, a result of how majors are designed and how a diversity of courses are required from outside of the discipline. Thus, I think the system generally achieves the goal of expanding student perspectives even without directed intent.