The workings of an American college

Alfred Zawadowski, in an interesting article called "Bologna: Deformed Beginning, Good Direction," noted that the real strength of American higher education is its diversity. Here I will describe the academic requirements of Yale College. The emphasis here is on "College," although in ordinary parlance the distinction is rarely made between Yale University and Yale College.

At Yale University the bachelor-granting Yale College is still the heart of the system. At Harvard the emphasis long ago shifted to the Graduate School, but Yale, always educationally conservative, is still clinging to the importance of the College. After all, this is where it all started in 1701. All Yale professors, including Nobel Prize winners, must teach undergraduates. In addition to Yale College and the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University consists of several "schools": Architecture, Art, Divinity, Drama, Engineering and Applied Science, Forestry and Enviromental Studies, Law, Management, Medicine, Music, Nursing, Public Health, as well as the Institute of Sacred Music.

Yale College is relatively small. Yearly 1,300 students gain admission, and here the competition is fierce. A few years ago these lucky 1,300 were chosen out of about 10,000 applicants but by now the number of applicants has doubled. Almost all American college-bound students take the SAT (scholastic aptitude test), the results of which help to determine which college the student will attend. Each college and university makes public the average SAT scores of its incoming students, and thus the applicant pretty well knows where to apply and where not to.

As I mentioned in one of my comments, there are two kinds of requirements in American colleges. First, the requirements for graduation and then, within that, the requirements of the department the student picked as his/her major. The overall requirements, that is the number of courses necessary for the bachelor's degree, are pretty much the same everywhere. At Yale most courses count for one credit while at other institutions people talk of credit hours, but it's the same concept. Let's say that if a course meets three times a week that course is worth three credit hours.

So, although there are a few exceptions, at Yale one semester course means one credit. For a bachelor's degree Yale College demands 36 credits in eight semesters. So, in four semesters one must take at least five courses and in the other four at least four courses. However, most people end up with more than 36 credits.

At the end of each year, a certain minimal number of credits must be accumulated for "promotion," that is to be able to move up to the next class. Problems with promotion occur mostly in the first (freshman) year. It is the student's dean who watches the progress of the student and warns him of impending dangers. Because if a student doesn't have at least six credits by the end of the first year he is stuck. His only option is to enroll in another institution during the summer from which he can apply a maximum of two credits toward a Yale degree. What happens if the student falls hopelessly behind? He will have to leave the institution for a whole year in the hopes that  he will get his act together. So, it is a very structured, very strict system. One can't "linger" on.

Now we come to the basic philosophy of education, at least at Yale. Education is described in lofty terms. The very first sentence in describing the undergraduate curriculum summarizes this philosophy: "Yale College offers a liberal arts education, one that aims to cultivate a broadly informed, highly disciplined intellect without specifying in advance how that intellect will be used." And it continues in this vein: "The College does not seek primarily to train students in the particulars of a given career…. Its main goal is to instill knowledge and skills that students can bring to bear in whatever work they eventually choose."

As opposed to the common belief that students just pick and choose courses at random, there are strict "distributional guidelines." Yale demands, especially in the early years, a reasonable diversity of subject matter and approach and in the later years concentration in one of the major programs or departments. So, what are these distributional requirements? Every student must fulfill distributional requirements by taking no fewer than two course credits in the humanities and arts, two in the sciences, and two in the social sciences. Students must also take at least two course credits in quantitative reasoning, two course credits in writing, and courses to further their foreign language proficiency. The college strongly urges students to study abroad for a summer or for a whole year.

One cannot make a blanket statement about the intellectual content of American higher education. Just as Zawadowski emphasized, American higher education is extremely diverse. No one doubts that there are many colleges which are glorified high schools, but there are hundreds and hundreds of excellent ones. Here is one ranking of American universities which shows that there are many outstanding universities. They number in the hundreds.

As for the quality of high schools. Again, there are some excellent high schools and some lousy ones. It is not quite accurate to say that university officials simply disregard high school and start everything from zero. First, there are certain requirements to enter college. Second, in better high schools the student can take AP courses (Advanced Placement) which under certain circumstances can be used as college credits. It is true that the admission committee pays perhaps less attention to high school grades than to SAT scores, but that makes eminent sense. High school standards can be so different that grades given at that level don't tell us much about the intelligence of the student, or even his knowledge. SAT scores, on the other hand, in my experience at least, are excellent predictors of success in college. There are several internet sites when one can get a taste of SAT questions. Here is one. You can sit down and have fun. Keep in mind that the test is for seventeen-eighteen-year-old kids.

And finally, what kinds of tests should be given to applicants either to college or to professional schools? I heartily disliked the Hungarian entrance examination students had to take a few years ago if, let's say, they applied to law school. I used to subscribe to Rubicon, a popular history magazine, which each year gave samples of history entrance exams. Horror! Primitive essay questions and demands for facts, facts, and more facts. I think Hungarian law schools would be much better off if they demanded tests similar to the American LSAT tests. Again, if anyone wants to exercise his mind, I highly recommend taking a look at the samples. I wonder whether, for example, Mr. Gyula Budai who parades as a lawyer in charge of criminal behavior of political opponents would ever get into a law school after taking one of these tests. I somehow doubt it.

Finally, anyone who is interested in listening to some undergraduate lectures at Yale can enjoy a few that are available on line. I very much enjoyed David Blight's course, The Civil War and Reconstruction, but there are many others. I doubt that anyone would think that this is just warmed up high school stuff.

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An
Guest
Eva, I am absolutely sure that Yale lives up to its reputation and is an excellent educational institution. I wonder, however, how Yale could represent the experience of the average undergraduate student in the US. First, it’s a private college, and as you yourself said it has relatively few and well-selected students (in fact, it draws the top students of the country). I do not mean to take away the merits of Yale, but these are rather ideal circumstances for a college, and probably not typical outside the Ivy League colleges. My experience with a large state university is somewhat different. As I understand, places like this teach 20,000-30,000 undergraduate students, and a sizeable number of students arrive unprepared for college. I see that the university is making all kinds of arrangements to help these students (remedial classes, tutoring, etc.). I do not have first-hand experience how well these work, but I can see that the university is making every effort to accommodate these students. I guess because of the large number of students, a lot of the undergraduate classes are taught by teaching assistants (graduate students) or adjuncts. It may not be true at all colleges at our university,… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

An: “I wonder, however, how Yale could represent the experience of the average undergraduate student in the US. First, it’s a private college, and as you yourself said it has relatively few and well-selected students (in fact, it draws the top students of the country).”
If some is accepted at Yale, the college makes sure that he/she has enough money to complete his/her course of study.
Moreover, I think that by now it is tuition free. As of September.

An
Guest

@Eva: What I meant by well-selected is not that it is limited to the wealthy, but that it selects the smartest and best prepared students.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

An, Sure, it is selective, but so is practically all half-decent universities. They all have a cut-off point. Take a look at the chart here: http://www.satscores.us/

An
Guest

Eva, exactly my point, the cut off scores are getting lower as you go down the list.
I am not saying that at the lower end these scores are terrible, I just wanted to point out that large public universities may face a different challenge from small private institutions. They have a much larger number of students, who are less prepared (and these schools are also financially squeezed as states are cutting back on funding). Some big public universities live up to the challenge very well, some maybe less so.
I think that the problem is some ways similar to that of in Hungary: the need to take care of more students who may be less prepared and that puts a strain on the system. Regardless of what system is that.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

An: “Some big public universities live up to the challenge very well”
Yes, California and Michigan, for example. Connecticut less so. By the way, that’s where the new minister, Tamás Fellegi, received his Ph.D.

An
Guest

Eva, I wish Hungarian policy makers would study and visit good public universities an the US and in Europe, compare different models, see the pros and cons of the different systems, before they make ideological decisions about educational reform. Or at least consult with experts who do just that. This government does not seem to hold experts in high regard, unfortunately.

pgyzs
Guest

I agree with An, it is not the treatment of the Elite (which is of course also important) but the education of the bottom which defines the quality of an educational system. An wrote everything in her first post I wanted to point out.
Eva: “Connecticut less so. By the way, that’s where the new minister, Tamás Fellegi, received his Ph.D.”
And what would this imply?

John T
Guest

“I agree with An, it is not the treatment of the Elite (which is of course also important) but the education of the bottom which defines the quality of an educational system. An wrote everything in her first post I wanted to point out.”
Eva – the best thing that could happen is to move away from the notion of Elites and to ensure that either there is scope to provide higher education to all those who want/need it, or, as is more likely, ensure that where this isn’t possible, that people get access to University firstly on merit and not solely because of the ability to pay. And frankly, while there are many talented academics, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should be considered the elite.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

pgyzs: “Eva: “Connecticut less so. By the way, that’s where the new minister, Tamás Fellegi, received his Ph.D.” And what would this imply?”
Put it that way. If I wanted to have a Ph.D. I wouldn’t go to UConn to get it.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

John T: “Eva – the best thing that could happen is to move away from the notion of Elites and to ensure that either there is scope to provide higher education to all those who want/need it
I think both are needed.

John T
Guest
“I think both are needed” Eva – I think you need people to carry the world forward, but I think it wrong to consider them an elite (and I suspect a number of people you might include in the elite would not consider themselves part of it). Calling them an elite implies a seperation from the rest of society, which is potentially dangerous. It can also give people in the “elite” an inflated opinion of themselves (e.g. Hungarian politicians). And it also implies a superiority, which I don’t actually think exists. There are many people outside the supposed elite who are far more capable and of value to a society as a whole. I think we all need to remember that learning is a lifelong process and not just an academic one. And those who may have been strong academically do not necessarily learn best as life progresses. Academic ability is certainly very important, but to that, I’d also add the ability to understand and interact socially with different groupings in society and also to be “street wise”. I’ve seen plenty of clearly very bright graduates who are poor in these non academic abilities and any “head start” they had… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

John T: “Calling them an elite implies a seperation from the rest of society,”
Maybe it is the wrong word, but one needs very highly qualified people who will be able to conduct research, come up with inventions, etc. But you misunderstand me if you think that I’m for a narrowly defined elite education, the kind Rózsa Hoffmann wants to bring back by limiting the number of students who will enter college.
No, I’m for a very broadly based education system in which quality education prepares people for the skills necessary in a highly developed society in the twenty-first century.
But at the same time we need those who because of their superior intellect will come up with the discoveries sociey will need in the future.

John T
Guest

Eva – I’d agree with you to a point, but it isn’t always a superior intellect that comes up with the best inventions, though of course you would no doubt need engineers / technicians to implement them.
I think my points are better suited to one of the other threads on education. So I’ll put something forward elsewhere.

pgyzs
Guest
“Put it that way. If I wanted to have a Ph.D. I wouldn’t go to UConn to get it.” In what field? Under the supervision of which professor? Stating something like this is just superficial and meaningless. When I was considering which graduate school to apply to, I excluded e.g. Yale, because they are almost not even on the map in my field (or rather in the subfield I’m specialized in). So, I realize that you want to take every opportunity to be condescending towards a Fidesz minister, but no, this doesn’t imply at all that Fellegi would be dumber or his certificate would be worthless. Try something else. “But at the same time we need those who because of their superior intellect will come up with the discoveries sociey will need in the future.” This is true in principle, but the problem in Hungary is not the lack of smart people. The problem is that the educational system doesn’t have a clue what to do with the rest. In the official records, the number of people getting a degree is not bad. But if you ask the question what kind of and what quality then the answer is devastating.… Read more »
latefor
Guest

Eva – “But at the same time we need those who because of their superior intellect will come up with the discoveries sociey will need in the future.”
Intellectuals always come up with new discoveries (theories),however most of them are not capable to think in practical terms. Hence the reason they almost always get it wrong (E.g. Marx, Engels, Lenin etc. etc.) and societies suffer in the long run.

whoever
Guest

Intellectuals always come up with new discoveries (theories),however most of them are not capable to think in practical terms… societies suffer in the long run.
Quite funny to read a dismissal of ‘intellectuals’ written by someone whose English is so appalling. It’s good to know that the main source of social suffering is intellectual life. Books and theories are to blame, it seems. It therefore follows, that if we got rid of pesky intellectuals, everything would be OK. Right?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

pgyzs: “In what field?”
Political science. Not exactly something one had to go to UConn for. It seems to me that he had a job there and on the side he finished his Ph.D.
But you’re right. I don’t have a very high opinion of people in the Fidesz orbit.

pgyzs
Guest

Well we know that very well.
On the other hand he went outside Hungary to at least have a broader perspective of the world than Elte/Corvinus. This is something most of our political elite (including your friend Ferenc) didn’t do. And to be honest, I don’t think you have to go anywhere to learn political science, but if he had a good professor in the middle of an Alabama corn field you can still learn a lot. There is a lot to criticize in current Fidesz, it’s not necessary to go this deep.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

pgyzs: “There is a lot to criticize in current Fidesz, it’s not necessary to go this deep.”
OK, you win. But the fact is that UConn is not a good university and that Fellegi got a Ph.D. there.
I knew a guy (56-er) who finished law school in Hungary but since he couldn’t do anything with that he got a Ph.D. from UConn in History. He even got a job teaching history at one of the branches. Years went by and the branch university demanded at least one publication in order for him to get tenure.
It was at that time that he turned to me in desperation. He sent me some junk he wanted to send to the prestigious Slavic Review and asked me to take a look at it. I fixed it here and there but I couldn’t write an article for him. To make a long story short, no respectable periodical would publish anything from poor Miki. At the end he found some local publication which accepted it and this way he didn’t lose his job.

The Columbian
Guest
The Columbian First, off, nice article. One minor comment on the fact-heavy nature of the Hungarian system. There is an anecdote of someone having once asked the court surgeon of George III. what made a good surgeon. His response was that in his opinion, everyone has more or less the same skill in cutting, so it is the factual knowledge that sets surgeons apart. Granted, he was no social scientist, but in life sciences and engineering, the more you know, the exponentially better science/engineering you are capable of. Even in social sciences, being booksmart helps. The greatest Hungarian social scientist/philosopher of our age, Miklos Tamas Gaspar is, in my opinion, set apart from his one-track counterparts by his immense knowledge. (still, he seems insanse, but the educational, entertaining kind of insane.) Contrast this with an opinion of fact-heavy courses a friend of mine here in the US had, stating rather disparagingly: “memorization and regurgitation”. It should be noted that a good third of all graduate students and post-docs in the US are from other countries, where they received a rigorous, fact-heavy education. This is an average of humanities and sciences, so one can safely assume that fact-heavy foreigners are even… Read more »
latefor
Guest

whoever – those who can see unique historical trends are often accused of ignorance.
Attack the problem not each other, please!
I did NOT say that intellectuals should be eliminated, but they should also consider the ideas of other social groups before they force their views on society.

Paul
Guest

Just knowing facts can be useful, but surely understanding them and being able to analyse and criticise them is the really important point. And that doesn’t come from just being stuffed with facts.
Intelligence isn’t knowledge. You can always look facts up, no book (or database) will give you intelligence.

latefor
Guest

Paul/whoever –
I must have hit the wrong nerve…

latefor
Guest

Paul/whoever-
I can see by now that this site is strictly for the intellectual “elite” only.
What was I thinking????????

Paul
Guest

latefor:
a) I was replying to The Columbian (as should have been obvious from the content of my post)
b) If I am part of the ‘intellectual elite’ it is in a very poor way.
c) If you feel inferior, that is your problem, for you to deal with. It has nothing to do with us.

An
Guest

@latefor: If intellectuals make societies suffer in the long run then Orban must be the greatest intellectual of recent Hungarian history 🙂
It’s always a bad idea to SOLELY rely on theories, principles, or personal convictions to guide practical policies, no matter who is doing it.

latefor
Guest

Paul,
I’ve been called many things on this blog. It is obvious to me that no matter what I say or how I say it, I will be refered to as an inferior moron etc. etc.
I guess that it will be the best for me if I just go back to the things I do best, such as fighting against antisemitism (as a Roman Catholic, mind you), just to name a few of my passions!

latefor
Guest

An,
I do not know of any new theories that Orban developed on his own and so far he did not published any right wing manifestos for the whole world to see.
He’s been in power for only five months and in my view it is too early to see how is he going to govern. (I can be wrong, but I am no intellectual heavyweight as you can probably see it from my comments)

whoever
Guest

Well, as Mark documented so well, if Orbán has an ideology based on his rhetoric, it tends to be composed of ‘offcuts’ from the likes of Berlusconi, or 1930s right-wing demagogues such as Gömbös.
As you argue, though, in practice, what he actually does may translate somewhat differently. It may be that there is ‘more bark than bite’ – and in fact Fidesz policy is more notable for a degree of welfarism and a mild form of statism, than being structured in any distinctly ideological right-wing form. The other aspect to this of course, is that such a form enables the kind of ‘client state’ upon which the cohesion of Fidesz arguably relies.
latefor – I wrote a couple of things here at one point which were a bit harsh, and which I later regretted. Yet probably you shouldn’t take too much notice of the odd bit of negativity, as most of the regular posters on this blog aren’t particularly nasty.

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