We live in a world where education is becoming more and more standardized. Although there may be slight variations in content or in the way things are taught, the curriculum found in higher education programs tends to be comparable among universities— at the very least, among schools within a particular country. This certainly has its benefits. Each generation will be provided the same breadth and depth of education, developing general well-roundedness and obtaining the necessary knowledge to succeed in today’s specialized but interconnected job market. For example, all engineers will have been exposed to similar content by the time they graduate, so companies do not need to worry about hiring someone who has never learned vital pieces of information. (Note: There are obviously other factors that play into whether one will be competitive for certain opportunities.)
For many fields, especially those pertaining to the sciences, introductory classes are offered that broadly cover a range of general concepts, which have been deemed necessary as a basic foundation for learning. Before taking more advanced courses that explores ideas in further detail, students hoping to obtain a degree in physics are required to take an introductory course that covers several topics falling under the broad categories of mechanics and electricity/magnetism. (This is usually required for other science majors too, in order to have a basic understanding of all the different scientific fields.) Nowadays, students can earn credit for this course by achieving a certain core on an AP or CLEP exam, which indicates that they have mastered the general concepts of introductory physics.
In his book Warmth Disperses and Time Passes, professor H.C. von Baeyer describes the history of thermodynamics, recounting the stories of instrumental scientists and explaining how the way people have thought about heat has changed over time. It is a fascinating piece of work. For class, we were asked the question: If a 17-year old H.C. von Baeyer submitted a manuscript of this book in lieu of taking his AP Physics exam, should he receive credit? To be honest, I still don’t have a firm stance as to my position. At the moment, I learn towards “no,” simply because the purpose of an AP Physics exam is to demonstrate elementary understanding of several physics concepts. I have no doubt that the book reflects the tremendous amount of expertise that von Baeyer has on thermodynamics; however, it does not demonstrate his comprehension of other ideas, like the properties of waves or the law of motion. These are competencies asked of by the AP exams (see information on Physics 1, Physics 2, Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, and Physics C: Mechanics). Lacking formal knowledge on these concepts does not prepare him for later physics coursework.
That said, the irony is that he should perhaps receive credit, but for an upper-level credit instead. Many advanced courses, or even independent studies, focus on a specific topic. The quality of work that von Baeyer presents in his book is on par with or exceeds that demanded of a senior thesis or scientific literature review. Von Baeyer no doubt spent hours poring over scientific journals, research logs, personal letters, news articles, and other primary sources. In order to be able to write about the history of heat, he had to be able to thoroughly understand and explain its fundamental concepts.
Ultimately, however, the question must be asked: Is the higher education system itself flawed? Von Baeyer shouldn’t receive credit because he has not fulfilled the necessary requirements that have been put in place. Nevertheless, could it not be argued that he has demonstrated the curiosity and exploration that is at the heart of science? Isn’t that the point— to have a scientific question, methodically seek answers, and gather a wealth of information? Maybe it is because society has changed, shifting to a more application-based and standardized form of science. We use science to create or to achieve ends and means, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. But have we lost something in the process of attempting to standardize knowledge? It is something to think about.