January 21, 2010

Paving the Way for Future Elites

This is a letter I wrote to the president of my university, suggesting that students should be allowed to change their study schedule, and undergrads should be allowed to take graduate-level courses.

Dear Prof. Ng

I am a student from the Department of Economics. I am writing to suggest two improvements that could be made to our curriculum system. Since there is only one week left of the Course Add/Drop period, should there be any change made regarding these two suggestions, please kindly inform me so that further amendments to my time table could be carried out timely.

To allow students with legitimate reasons to tailor-make their own study schedule.

Since enrollment in college, I’ve been planning to pursue a career in the academia, for which I have since decided to join a PhD program after graduation. Since nowadays the study of economics is unbelievably mathematics-intensive, major economics graduate programs unanimously require students to take a wide range of math/statistics courses, including calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, real analysis, mathematical statistics etc. Also, since PhD students specialize quickly after enrollment in graduate school, it is also of undeniable importance for students to gain an accurate and deep understanding of what each of the subdisciplines of economics is about. With both these concerns taken into account, our three-year college program for an economics student should already be crowded with these math/stat/econ courses. However, since there are required courses such as those business and management courses, which are only remotely, if at all, related to the study of economics, in our university’s program, students interested in graduate school have to squeeze in as many relevant courses as possible to their schedule while barely meeting the requirement of admission to graduate school.

Here I am not saying that these “irrelevant” courses should be eliminated completely from the economics program – of course there are students who are intending to become business leaders and need the skill taught in these courses – but that since the career plan and thus the needs vary significantly among students, we should not have a strictly unified course arrangement for every student at all; even if there is one, we should allow as much flexibility as possible for students to make extensive adjustments as resources allow. Respecting the personal development of each and every student, helping every individual succeed in her own way – this should be the ultimate goal of the true “Whole Person Education”.

To allow undergraduate students to take postgraduate-level courses.

I once inquired the Academic Registry and the response was: An undergraduate student cannot take postgraduate courses because the level of academic requirement is different. What difference? In terms of the thirst for knowledge and the courage to achieve, there should be no difference between a student taking an undergraduate course and taking a graduate one. In terms of knowledge, I would say no one understands better how much a student knows about a subject than her own. Therefore instead of forbidding undergrads to challenge themselves to take graduate-level courses, the University should support students who are willing to learn and who has the ability to do so – as long as the student can demonstrate good academic standing.

As I said above, for a PhD Economics student, it is important to learn about the different subfields thoroughly before going to graduate school and choose a research area. Specifically, such understanding should best be gained from graduate-level courses instead of undergraduate courses. For one thing, due to the historical course of development of the study of economics, undergraduate-level economics courses differ considerably from graduate-level courses. A graduate field course works much better than an undergraduate course in helping a student learn what it really is like in graduate school. For another thing, how well a student has performed in graduate-level courses is probably the best indicator on which the admission committee can base their decision. Therefore I believe it would benefit students significantly if they are allowed to take graduate-level courses as long as they are in good academic standing, and this would not cause much of a resource-constraint to the University as well, since there should not be many undergraduates interested in taking graduate-level courses.

By catering to the needs of the constantly changing body of students, and the dynamic ideology of the society, we will realize the true “Whole Person Education”. This demands improvements every now and then, which is what our University has done in the past, and should not and will not cease to persist in in the future.


Han Zhang

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