Thursday, March 26, 2009


Suppose you are a smart high school senior interested in astronomy. Heading for college you look for schools with programs in astronomy, astrophysics and strong physics programs that look suitable. You discover that one of these places has a big program in astronomy and offers an undergraduate major. You apply, are accepted, and go to that college.

Now as it happens a few years earlier some members of the physics department came to the conclusion that astronomy just didn't sell. Lots of students were vaguely interested in star-gazing, but very few had the math skills to do astronomy or had any interest in developing them, and none had any real interest in going onto grad school in the field. So members of the department decided that in order to get additional positions and build their department they needed to revamp their program and offer more user-friendly courses.

So, as faculty retired or moved on, they started filling slots with new faculty whose interests were congenial to a greater number of students--including "cosmic studies scholars" and astrologers. By the time you get to this college, most members of the department are astrologers. There are courses in astronomy, physics and math but most of the courses the department offers are on casting horoscopes. The department is proudly pluralistic: it supports work in all star-related studies, including both astronomy and astrology.

Well, what do you know. You don't know much about astronomy: you're a student--you came to this college to learn about it. So you take some courses in physics and math as required, and a bunch of astrology courses, and do well. In your senior year, you have a chat with the chair about graduate programs. He suggests that you consider going into a terminal MA program to prepare for graduate work in the field.

The department at this college it turns out, is geared up to offering the kind of courses that will appeal to students who don't have any serious interest in the sciences. It is not expected that majors will continue on to grad school or pursue astronomy professionally. The aim of the department is to offer students something along the lines of the Discovery Chanel: the kind of thing the general public thinks of as science, with beautiful computer graphics in vivid color and interesting facts about the history of astronomy, without any tedious technical details--Science Lite.

This has worked out very nicely for the department: it's added new positions. But it's not so hot for you: you assumed that successfully completing an undergraduate major would prepare you for a PhD program in the field.

Of course most students who take courses in a field are not going to pursue that field professionally. But it seems to me that even if they don't, they should be getting the real stuff--not astrology, and not even the Discovery Channel. And majors should be getting the real stuff. If a department is committed to offering user-friendly entertainment or edification, it should make that clear and certainly not offer a major.


KT said...

I love you!

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