Are Survey Courses Outdated?

Date: January 3, 2017 12:13 pm
Author: Yisroel Ben-Porat

Every YC student is required to take a survey course, which is a broad introduction to a field of study. The Jewish studies requirements include at least one survey course on classical, medieval, or modern Jewish history. Many majors – such as psychology, sociology, and political science – require at least one introductory course. The history department especially relies upon survey courses, requiring two surveys of European history and at least one survey of ancient or modern historiography (in lieu of a senior thesis). The history department has also offered elective survey courses in American and Middle Eastern history. The prevalence of survey courses in YC compels us to consider their efficacy: are survey courses still useful, or are they fossils of an outdated academic philosophy?

On one hand, survey courses have significant advantages. They provide a broad exposure and background to a field. Oftentimes, a general context is necessary for deeper, more specific analysis; otherwise, it can be difficult or fruitless to engage in a more detailed study of a particular phenomenon. For example, can one understand the Spanish Inquisition divorced from its medieval context? Social psychology without a general knowledge of psychology? The Civil War without a grasp of the broader contours of American history? Such endeavors are of questionable value. Furthermore, without survey courses, students would be ignorant of foundational knowledge in various subjects. One of the goals of a university education is to enable students to become educated, worldly people. According to many, that goal entails a great range of material, from works of literature, philosophy, and history, to other subjects in both the humanities and the sciences. Survey courses can, to a large extent, help fulfill this goal.

Survey courses benefit students in other ways as well. Students who have not decided on their major can take survey courses to find out if they are interested or skilled at a particular subject. For example, Josh Blicker (YC ‘18) decided to major in political science after taking the introductory course “Fundamentals of Political Science.” Even students who have declared a major can discover which aspects of a field particularly interest them, and which electives in that major they’d like to take. For example, David Tribuch (YC ‘16) told me that taking Prof. Douglas Burgess’ course “Survey of U.S. History I” sparked his interest in Burgess’ upper-level electives such as “Atlantic World” and “Piracy & The Nation State.”

On the other hand, survey courses have several difficulties. Although in theory it is a great idea to study all of medieval Jewish history, psychology, and American history, in practice it is not so feasible. Survey courses rarely cover the full extent of the topic. They don’t merely sacrifice quality for quantity, depth for breadth; they fail in their coverage. Is it really possible to substantially engage with the above topics in a single semester? Medieval Jewish history could easily fill two semesters – one for medieval Christendom, and one for the Islamic world. Psychology is an exceedingly vast subject containing many sub-disciplines, including behavioral, social, experimental, and forensic psychology. As for American history, each century could justifiably deserve its own course.

Besides the vastness of surveyed subjects, there is another difficulty. Some professors lack the broad expertise necessary for teaching a survey course. As renowned physicist John Ziman joked, “A scientist is a person who knows more and more about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing.” The same holds true for other disciplines. Although most doctoral programs usually include at least two years of general coursework, the primary focus is on the dissertation research, which usually involves an extremely specific or obscure topic. For example, NYU’s history PhD handbook states, “The department has devised a curriculum and designed requirements intended to move students toward their dissertation as quickly as possible, while also offering grounding in the field before the specialized work of the dissertation begins.”

Additionally, survey courses are outdated. In the early 20th century, survey courses rose in popularity as a response to rampant over-specialization. An article from the Journal of Higher Education in 1939 refers to the “rapid growth in the number and popularity of survey courses during the past decade,” noting that specialists are “often troubled by the extreme departmentalization of learning and… appalling lack of information on matters outside [their] immediate scope of activity.” Yet, since then, such courses have fallen in popularity. Countless new disciplines and subfields have emerged, while established bodies of knowledge have lost their prestige.

Although a lack of popularity does not necessarily indicate a lack of pedagogic value, it should be noted that YC’s adoption of the Core curriculum reflects a desire to shift away from the survey course mentality. Whereas the old curriculum required two classes each from “Literature,” “Humanities,” and other traditionally-conceived categories, the Core requires “interdisciplinary” courses in categories with titles such as “Cultures over Time,” “Interpreting the Creative,” and “Contemporary World Cultures.” Thus, the ongoing ubiquity of survey courses in YC is puzzling.

The debate about survey courses parallels a similar discussion regarding Torah learning. An age old question is whether broad exposure to Talmudic data (beki’ut) is preferable to in-depth analysis (iyun). Although all agree that both aspects are important, the dispute lies in how to balance the two sides. At YU, the Roshei Yeshiva stand at different points on the spectrum, with shiurim given at various paces and styles. Although there are significant differences between Torah learning and secular studies, it is noteworthy that in the former case students can choose what kind of shiur to attend. Perhaps survey courses should be optional as well, rather than a requirement; students should have the option to decide which kinds of courses work best for them.

The purpose of this article is not to resolve our central question, but merely to elucidate some of the key arguments for each side, to point out an inconsistency in YC’s educational philosophy, and to advocate that the keys to undergraduate education should to a greater extent be placed in the hands of those who are being educated: the students.

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This post was written by Yisroel Ben-Porat

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