Improving the quality of a liberal education

5 Feb

I wrote this article for my university magazine last year, and it never ended up being published (weirdly enough, saying students breeze through core classes with little effort wasn’t something the school wanted to report to alumni). I just ran across it again today and figured I ought to at least “publish” it somewhere. Disclaimer: I adore Gonzaga and had a great education there. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use some improvement.


(*Names changed)

Each spring, prospective students are told that a Gonzaga degree will mean something. It will tell employers and grad schools that they are hardworking, smart, capable. It will show that they have a solid background in the liberal arts and a grounding in ethics as well as competency in their major. They are told that they will be challenged, but come out better people for it. Yet four years later, some students say that their education has been, well, a breeze.

These are the people that look like exemplary students. They have high GPAs, often multiple majors, are leaders in extracurricular activities and will be graduating with honors.

Yet, Stephanie*, a senior double major in French and International Relations, has a 3.82 GPA that she says she earned with minimal work.

If I’m going to be quizzed directly on it, I will do the reading. If I have to write something on it, I will skim and find the points to write about. If it’s going to be directly covered in lecture, I don’t do the reading,” she said. “And I study about as often as I read — so not very often.”

Her lack of effort isn’t because she doesn’t care, but because there doesn’t seem to be any purpose to working harder.

If I can do the average amount of work and get an A, why would I do more, why would I push myself further? There is a curiosity sometimes, but when I can get good grades with low effort I can also commit to this that and the other thing. I can do so many other things and still do well in my classes,” she said.

Clearly, the goal of a university isn’t for students to slide from orientation to graduation while doing minimal work. At Gonzaga, there are plenty of dedicated professors and students who are eager to teach and learn, and it wouldn’t take much to make this school an event better place to do that.


The core requirements are one of the hallmarks of a Gonzaga education. By requiring every student to have an understanding of the liberal arts, we show the importance of education not just for a job, but for life. Sadly, for many students these courses are just a requirement to check off, and some professors treat them the same way.

Professors seem to have this concept that the core is something that no one wants to do but everyone has to do,” said Ellie*, a senior Special Education major with a 3.96 GPA. “They don’t encourage student engagement.”

When students perceive that a professor sees a lower-level course as nothing but a requirement to check off a list, they begin to see it the same way. Many core classes are based on regurgitation of facts given in readings and lectures, with little analysis.

So much of what I’ve experienced in the core here doesn’t go any higher than comprehension [in Bloom’s taxonomy] and the extent of assessment is regurgitation,” Ellie said. “If we stepped beyond that and asked students to synthesize ideas, write more papers, do more presentations, be able to verbally discuss ideas … we’re at a college level, we should be able to receive information and go that next step.”

There are certainly professors who put in the extra effort to make a core class meaningful. These are the courses that end up mattering long past finals week, classes in which it is obvious that being required does not preclude a class from mattering. For Ellie, the most memorable example of this was in a sophomore English class taught by Dr. Jeffrey Miller.

I remember being so impressed the first day of class,” she said “He said, ‘I acknowledge that every single one of you is in this class because you are required to take an English core. I don’t care. I want to make this worth your time and my time. I’m not going to teach you anything you don’t already know about literature but I want to encourage you to practice what you’ve learned.’ … I may have hated Moby Dick, but I remember Moby Dick.”

For many students, the problem with core classes is the simple fact that everyone is required to take the same sequence. Sometimes, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits from high school can waive a requirement, but not always. Under this system, students who may be ready for advanced literature critique end up in the same courses with students who need remedial English, leaving both groups underserved.

Much of this may be remedied by the upcoming core revision, which intends to further integrate core classes and add more disciplines, such as foreign languages and social sciences. A little bit of thought and a lot of passion may be all it takes to change the core from something to slog through to something to charge into.


There is clear proof that grade inflation has run rampant nationwide over the course of the past half century. A study by Christopher Healy of Furman University and Stuart Rojstaczer of Duke of student grades from 1960 to 2009 showed that the number of grades that were As increased from 15 to 23 percent, while the proportion of Cs decreased from 35 to 15 percent. A similar trend can be seen at Gonzaga, where the average GPA of graduates increased from 3.13 in 1988 to 3.35 in 2010.

For many students, A has come to stand for average, because they do not need to put in extraordinary work to receive the highest grade possible. Not only does this lead to grades being a less useful way to judge student ability, it also leads to complacency.

I don’t have to put that much work in to get a good grade,” said Clare*, a senior sociology major with a 3.9 GPA. “So I’m not going to dump all this energy and effort in when it’s not making a difference.”

Students who have studied abroad or taken part in the IB system noted the difference between those grading systems and the American system. According to Stephanie, who attended school in France for a year, in the French system, students are graded out of 20. “You need a 10 to pass,” she explained. “If you’re getting a 14 you’re a rockstar, a 17 is unheard of.”

Under this system, students know that their work will never be perfect, but they always have something to keep striving for. When an A, even a 100 percent, can be achieved by simply following the rubric, there is no reason to try to exceed the expectations.

Grade inflation is a problem, but many students express concern about the possibility of individual professors trying to combat the system. After all, graduate schools can’t tell if one professor’s C is the academic equivalent of another’s A. It may be worthwhile to adopt a similar system to some high schools’ IB program, where work is scored on the 20-point scale, but a score much lower than a 20 translates to an A for transcript purposes. This would give students something to strive for, without punishing them for taking more challenging courses.


Not only is there little incentive for students to try to surpass expectations, those expectations can be dismally low. In some courses, professors expect their students to take the “experience” part of their college experience more seriously than the “college” part.

I’ve had professors say we’re going to push this test back because we won that St. Mary’s game last night and I know you’re all probably too hung over,” Ellie said. 

For the professor to move a test or paper based on it being a day we’re all going to stay out late, not get a lot of sleep and probably be hung over is a little condescending,” said Mariana*, a senior Classics and English double major with a 3.87 GPA. “I think the teachers do it a little bitterly, having learned that no one cares about their class enough to bother to be sober for the test so they’ll just move it so they don’t have to read a bunch of drunk test responses. It makes me embarrassed to be associated with this group of kids who only care about getting drunk and blowing off their work.”

Of course, there are exceptions. There are classes where students have to push themselves, to work harder than they knew they could in order to succeed. Mariana recalled a Greek Archaeology course with Dr. Andrew Goldman, for which she spent every weekend in the library working on a 10-page final paper.

I ended up getting an A in that class and I was really proud of it, and I still feel really great about that class, it was one of the high achievements of my life. Once I learned that the standard was higher, I had this reserve that I was willing to draw on.”

Not doing the assigned reading should not be an option. A term paper written in a couple hours should not receive an A it doesn’t earn. A core class should not be something to sleep through, it should awaken academic interests students didn’t know they had.

When professors demand more of their students, most students are able to respond with a higher caliber of work than they are used to being asked for. Higher expectations would not overwhelm our students. Rather, they would prove to those students that they can do better than they ever thought possible.



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