• U.S.

Education: Pancakes and Plumbing

3 minute read

Once upon a time not so many years ago, the end-of-term vacation period for college students meant days of visiting with friends or just loafing. This week, by contrast, three-quarters of the 8,000 students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be completing courses in what is billed as the richest extracurricular intersession program in advanced education. The range of subjects—totaling 500 different courses over a three-week period—is enough to satiate the intellectual appetite for an entire regular semester. Along with such basics as German and calculus, the curriculum offers:

> Archaeoastronomy -astromythology: Stonehenge, Mayan and Egyptian pyramids.

> How to build factories in outer space.

> “Banana Breakfast,” an “empirical” survey of banana pancakes, scones and kreplach.

> How to repair and maintain a bicycle.

The intersemester activity at M.I.T. is but one example of what has become commonplace on U.S. campuses. Although they are not always mandatory, intersession programs are now offered at about 400 colleges and universities. At many of the schools they include courses (sometimes for credit, sometimes not) that would not be considered academically appropriate during the regular school year. At Smith College, for example, plumbing is on the January bill of fare, while St. Lawrence University in upstate New York offers ski conditioning and fly tying. Travel is often an essential and expensive element. At a price of $1,555 each, Adelphi University is sending 20 students from Long Island to India to study historic sites where the country’s religions originated. Oxford College, a division of Emory University, offers a trip to the Yucatan to study Mexican civilization. California’s Mills College counts among its 30 interterm courses one called “Backpacking in Hawaii.” For $450, the Mills students are shepherded through the volcanic areas of the island state, taught to read topographical maps and encouraged to complete an individual research project during 3½ not quite footloose weeks.

Student Unrest. While overseas adventures are popular, the schools hope that the January courses can also further students’ serious interests. At N.Y.U., for example, Professor Henry Mullish attracts about 150 “highly motivated” graduate students and fellow teachers for his five-day course on computer science. Since many nonscientific fields in which they work call for statistical analysis, Mullish attempts to teach them the rudiments of computer programming while dispelling their “innate distrust” of the machines. Says Mullish: “I win them over by teaching them a modicum of contempt for computers.”

Not all educators are as bullish as Mullish on intersession courses. The innovation stemmed in part from the unnrest in the late 1960s about traditional forms of education. That trend toward experimentation is undergoing serious re-examination at many universities and affecting intersession courses at a few. Wesleyan University, for example, has discontinued its intersession program partly because it was proving too expensive. Supporters of the idea, however, still see the January term as a valuable way to bring more variety into college curriculums—for both students and professors.

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