The good news is that at several public universities in Brazil, students are being allowed space in the curriculum to add classes of their own choosing to the pre-defined program of study they are obliged to follow in order to earn a degree. Okay, most of these choices must be made within their area of study. But there is also an allowance to choose a certain number of credits from any degree program offered at the university. That’s where the good news ends.
Most Brazilian universities still offer rigid, course-laden degrees where students proceed lock-stop from one semester to the next. This does have the advantage of relieving professors of the responsibility of academic advising since all students follow essentially the same path to their degree. And it should be remembered that students are obliged to select their degree program before they enroll. Once decided, they are stuck; no flexibility here. The only option available to a student who is not happy with his or her choice of degree program is to drop out and start over from the beginning in a different program. Which also means repeating the admissions process.
Giving students the flexibility to tailor the course of studies to their own interests in an important innovation. But . . . degree completion can require anywhere from 40 to a staggering 100 classes—at the lower end in the arts, at the higher end in areas such as engineering, architecture, and medicine and somewhere above mid-point for degrees in areas like economics. The allowance for electives is likely to be around 10 classes (with a few programs offering more) and only 2-3 outside their area of study. But it gets worse.
For the few classes that a student might take outside their discipline and beyond their required courses, they must have the permission of the professor for the class and section they want. On the surface this may seem reasonable but there are no incentives for professors to accept these students—they represent extra work that will not result in any reward or recognition. Students from other areas will not have the predictable pre-requisites that degree students marching together through the same program of study will have. As a result, the professor faces some additional diversity in the classroom, not to mention extra assignments to read and grade.
The limited data available show a very small percentage of students taking advantage of the opportunity to cross disciplines on their way to a degree. But there are no data that show how many students tried and were turned away by professors who perhaps didn’t want the extra bother.
In a world where knowledge is more complex, more interdisciplinary, all the time, how relevant can so much specialized knowledge be? What intellectual capacity goes uncultivated with such a constricted view of what a university education means? At a time when so many people are lauding Steve Jobs as a genius of our age, we should remember his insistence that we stand at the crossroads of humanities and science as we look to the future. We must be able to see beyond the limits of a single body of knowledge. Universities in Brazil and elsewhere in the region would serve their students better by giving them real flexibility and more choices.