Educational reforms

EDUCATIONAL change sometimes rivals glaciers for speed. The last major reform occurred a century ago with the introduction of the elective system in colleges and universities. Change might occur faster at these institutions but for resistance from educators themselves. But the 1886 report by Harvard president Charles W. Eliot on undergraduates' electives at his university indicated that the new system was working quite well.

The data -- from the experience of 350 students over four years -- did not bear out professors' fears that students would overspecialize or opt for easier courses.

The New York Times endorsed Eliot's report and editorialized, ``It is of less moment what a young man studies in college than how he studies.''

Electives for undergraduates are now an accepted part of the system, but other reforms are needed today.

Despite modern technology, too many students continue to pursue their higher education inefficiently and expensively. Two costly anachronisms are the classroom lecture -- which can cost more than $50 an hour at a private institution -- and dormitory living.

Older students would fare much better under more self-paced educational methods. And with the plethora of fine textbooks and audiovisual aids, even younger ones could use meetings with professors -- rather than lecture attendance -- as a means to pursue questions and illustrate competence. Radical reform? Not really, when viewed as an extension of the elective system.

Electives gave students the opportunity to select some courses; self-paced instruction would give them the option of saving ever-increasing tuition costs by paying fees more reflective of the institution's actual costs for such programs. The self-paced option, already available at some institutions today, needs legitimizing by educators so that students do not feel that it is a less preferable back door to their educational goals.

That legitimization is what a courageous president Eliot helped give the elective system 100 years ago.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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