Humanities classes short-change

Pepperdine University wants all of its students to attain a well-rounded liberal arts education as implied by the slew of general education courses required for them to graduate.

Traditionally studying humanities is extremely valuable because it has the potential to teach students how to communicate effectively as well as to think creatively and independently. All of this is usually achieved through writing and class discussion.

While most courses in Pepperdine’s general education program successfully stays true to its liberal arts brand the humanities series falls short.

The main disservice to the Humanities series is that instead of conducting classes in standard intimate class settings students are herded into large lecture classes.

A large class in which students’ presence is not documented does not bode well for attendance. For example this semester Humanities 212 is only offered on Tuesdays and Fridays at 12 p.m. The course’s enrollment stands at around 245 students but only about half come on a regular basis. An informative lecture about the bubonic plague is merely background noise to a room full of students on Facebook.

Though it is true that there is a degree to which students’ personal responsibility should be factored the structure of the courses do not foster an adequate environment to fully experience humanities.

While knowledge of western history is important to a basic liberal arts education large class sizes limit student interaction with the material. Good history courses as Pepperdine history professors have said expose students to first and secondary sources and encourage discussion and development of original ideas.

While the information is important the value of a history course to a liberal arts education lies in its ability to improve students’ writing and critical thinking skills. Unfortunately high enrollment in humanities classes limits class activity to listening to lectures reading without discussion and regurgitating facts on exams.

One of the main reasons that students pay high tuition to attend Pepperdine instead of a large state school is because Pepperdine boasts an average class size of 18 students and a 13:1 student to faculty ratio.

Pepperdine’s humanities classes – in which academic success typically hinges on one’s ability to memorize – test the lower levels of thinking that high school teachers should have sufficiently assessed. A top-tier university like Pepperdine should transcend those levels.

At more than a thousand dollars per credit required classes should cultivate higher level thinking skills such as analysis synthesis and evaluation. Humanities courses should endow students with skills applicable to many careers.

If the humanities courses simply teach historical facts they have only prepared students to impress people at dinner parties.

The professors of large lecture classes are certainly not to blame for this shortcoming. Lecturing more than 200 nameless people is not the choice setting for a humanities professor and these faculty members adapt well to their less-than-ideal situation. Their lectures are always informative and logical and their tests which require students to identify basic facts reflect the understanding that their class is not their students’ primary concern.

In order to remedy the humanities problem Pepperdine should require students to take three history courses of their choice or better yet require students to take one ancient history one pre-modern history and one modern history course. This would successfully cover the breadth of history that the Humanities series attempts to achieve instead of requiring the three specific humanities courses as it currently does.

To the average student who does not plan to pursue history the value of humanities comes from the enhanced learning process rather than the material covered.

A switch from requiring humanities lecture courses to small history discussion-based courses might force Pepperdine to hire more history professors and offer more courses. However these are necessary steps to maintain the small school image that Pepperdine projects even if it means doing without a couple more flat screen televisions.

While the humanities program has noble aims the large lecture classes rob humanities of its appropriate value within the context of a liberal arts education.

Of course many students might not see the purpose of studying humanities at all the skills that students should develop in these courses – how to think and communicate effectively through writing and discussion – are valuable to all majors and essential to a liberal arts education.

The administration should consider revising Pepperdine’s Humanities Division to incorporate these goals in order to allow it to reach its full potential.