A Call for Practical Curriculum in Higher Education

The various hierarchal levels in a corporate business, business mergers, countless statistical formulas for probability, and of course accounting are a few of the topics covered while working on my bachelors in Business Management. Important material you might suggest. Good to know, possibly. My response to that is, “I want a refund”.  What my college overlooked in their curriculum was that little of the previous topics just mentioned held as much weight as the most significant priority in all profit based industries, that is being able to sell. More specifically, without the ability to be successful as a salesperson in any sector of business, relatively little of the rest proves to be beneficial. Regretfully, this was never a major emphasis in my undergraduate course work, yet something learned outside of this context. Now before I go any further, it is important to say that I am a huge proponent of higher education, as I now teach U.S. history at the college level, and truly believe in its undeniable benefits. However, what I question is the material taught in both secondary and post-secondary institutions, in terms of its ability to ready our pupils for the real world. There are no quotations around that phrase, the real world, because there are truly none needed. When referring to this place in this way, it should be noted that real is exactly the correct description. No longer based on theory (or what should work), but on what actually does work.  Unfortunately, very few people are willing to pay for theory, but what is appreciated is results. So my question is why do so many institutions teach what few care about in the real world?

Now as an academic I am heavily devoted to theory within my specific field, as most professors are and should be in their field. Despite this fact, my teachings although include theory, are not limited to this, but focus on practical applications. The argument here is that theory should not be the beginning and end of our pedagogical work. So staying true to what I am “preaching”, allow me to give you a practical example of this argument or theory I am promoting. I rarely teach specific dates in my U.S. history class. Students knowing the correct century, as well as whether it was early, mid, or late in the century, is the most that is required of them to do well in the class in reference to dates. Now of course there are exceptions, such as we should all know when we declared our independence. Not overlooking 1861 perhaps, when the American Civil War began. However, February 12, 1809, the date of Lincoln’s birthday, I put the question to you, do we really care? More to the point, do we really need to care? The Louisiana Purchase was completed on April 30, 1803, now how many of my students, who do not continue on in the discipline of history, are going to remember that date when they turn 30 years old? Now the probability that they might remember the Purchase happened in the early part of the 19th century, is much higher I would argue. It is reasonable to suggest that requiring the less specific date is much more practical, as these dates are typically not what are asked in an interviews our students engage in later in life, regardless if the position is historically related or not. 

Continuing with the prior example, you might be pondering the question, so what do you teach? Isn’t history all about dates? As discussed in one of my previous articles, “Teaching that Promotes the ‘I Get It’ (Understanding or Memorization)”, the answer is whatever makes the content significant to my students. In other words, what makes them motivated to be engaged. That is within reason of course. For, instance slavery is unfortunately a major historical factor in both U.S. as well as world history, one that cannot be overlooked by any historian. Yet, students may become bored with seeing this topic continuously arise in the many time periods being covered throughout the semester. So one day my goal was to find a new element to bring into the topic, while still covering the necessary material. The aspect of both slave songs as well as religion came to mind. I began to research and use many knowledgeable scholars’ work on African American’s connection to the Baptist religion, both in the 19th century and as seen in present day America. To advocate for the student’s perspective, who cares about what type of faith 19th century slaves were able to adopt and gradually make their own? Simply put, there are those who do not find history interesting, or important. Yet, connect it to our lives today, such as how this affected what would be the primary religion practiced by African Americans today and all of a sudden the relevance as well as interest has drastically grown within the student’s eyes.

This debate is obviously not limited to history, lending itself to any educational efforts or goals. As adults we feel that our time is valuable, not to mention lacking in availability. Yet to enhance our success within the practice of pedagogy, one should consider their student’s time just as important as their own. Therefore being more discriminating in deciding what information is vital, as opposed to, for lack of a better phrase, a waste of time.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College. His book is available here.