MAXWELL:  Learning on the grab-and-go plan

7/22/1998- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I am fortunate to have spent my undergraduate years at two tiny, historically black colleges. Were I in college today, I would attend some sprawling public university, probably the University of Florida, where students are being prodded to take no more than the credits they need to graduate.

UF President John Lombardi _ correctly worried that the state’s largest campus is short on classrooms _ does not want students meandering toward their sheepskins, unnecessarily taking up space. He wants them out of there in four years.

Two years ago, the Legislature approved “Edu-Credits,” an “excess hours” system developed by Lombardi, that would increase tuition by $24.61 per credit hour (more than $700 for a full year of 30 credit hours) for in-state undergradutes taking more than 115 percent of the credit hours needed for a bachelor’s degree.

The Board of Regents followed the advice of Chancellor Adam Herbert last week and rejected rules implementing the “excess hours” charges systemwide. The charges were to have taken effect next month. Now, however, they will not go into effect for at least another year. Herbert argued that they are illegal. He said also that regents “do not believe in taxing intellectual inquiry.” This action will not affect UF, where a form of Edu-Credits was successfully installed in 1996.

Like Herbert, I dislike Lombardi’s scheme and believe that youthful intellectual curiosity _ for its own sake _ should be free to seek its own level without penalty.

I hate to think of how my schoolmates and I would have fared if we had faced excess-hours charges. When I graduated from Bethune-Cookman College in 1971, I had earned enough credits for a double major in English and history. I had had the good fortune of taking courses because I wanted to take them.

Sure, I wanted to graduate in the standard four years, but I also had an insatiable desire to learn things that I had been deprived of during my years in substandard all-black public schools in Florida.

And I was not alone. Most of my classmates at Bethune-Cookman and Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, which I attended in 1963, also wanted to fill in the intellectual gaps in their learning. My roommate and I took at least one course in geography, philosophy, botany, anthropology, geology, modern art, music, political science and sociology _ none of them needed for graduation.

These courses were invaluable.

I learned ideas that I still draw upon today, ideas that gave me _ a young African-American who had not traveled abroad _ a sense of the world, a sense of the connectedness among systems of knowledge, cultures, peoples and historical epochs.

As a 17-year-old freshman, I had never heard, for example, of German composer Richard Wagner. I was intrigued to learn, in a music history class taught by the same professor who taught modern art, that Wagner’s greatest masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelungen, is based on the same German mythology that shaped much of Adolf Hitler’s Weltschmerz.

Best of all, these courses taught me the love of learning and gave me, for better or for worse, a lifelong obsession for books. The day that I first walked onto Wiley’s campus, I had not read anything of Joseph Conrad.

But when I dropped out two years later to join the Marine Corps, I had read all of his novels, novellas and short stories. I did the same with Albert Camus (whose last name I mispronounced as a freshman), J.D. Salinger and John Galworthy. I took an entire semester to read Galworthy’s The Forsyte Saga.

The next semester, all on my own, I discovered Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which led me into a study of the Black Death. Here, I fell in love with the beautiful, grotesque European paintings of that era.

A classmate and I started a reading club at Wiley, persuading the English department chairman and our sponsor to drive us to bookstores in faraway Dallas, Houston and New Orleans. They were thrilled to have students interested in great literature and bookstores.

Today, I would suffer at UF, where Lombardi proclaims that most students are “on track” as a result of his effort to regularly apprise them of their progress toward completing degree requirements and moving on.

Unfortunately, many Florida lawmakers, especially those in the Senate, like the excess-hours law. Their attitude makes intellectual inquiry an expensive liability. Learning should not be subject to marketplace forces.