Second Opposition Speaker

Linda S. Day, Ph.D.
University of Missouri-Columbia

Paul Anderson wrote, “I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when looked at in the right way, did not become still more complicated.”  We can all appreciate this observation as we contemplate the dilemma of what to do with undergraduate education in communication sciences and disorders.

We are at a crossroads in higher education in our discipline right now; profound change in our programs is inevitable if we are to respond to the times:

--The explosion of information in speech, language, and hearing science and of pertinent information in related fields is important and compelling.  We must restructure our undergraduate curricula to accommodate this information.

--The employment market for clinicians will not continue to absorb our graduates at the current level.  We should restructure our programs to offer coursework to more students but to fewer and better-selected majors.  We need to ensure an important place for our programs in our colleges and universities by teaching service courses that are valued by students and administration.

--The workplace in which our future graduates find themselves will likely not resemble anything that we have experienced.  More than ever, our students will need to be able to think on their feet and adapt to changing expectations.  We will serve them and their professional needs best by making sure that they learn how to think for themselves
I believe that our best course is to make sure that the emphasis of undergraduate education in our discipline is on developing a sophisticated understanding of normal function.  We cannot do this if we continue to view information on normal processes only in the context of service to teaching how to diagnose and treat disorders.  The future of our discipline depends upon our attracting highly qualified, intellectually curious students into the field.  We must offer a curriculum that will challenge them and appeal to their intellectual curiosity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack Up that "the sign of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."  I would say that is the sign of a first-rate education--which is, of course, what we all want undergraduate education in CSD to be.  Can pre-professional undergraduate education be first-rate?

At the end of their undergraduate program, can your students engage in dialectical thinking?  Can they hold both sides of an issue in mind simultaneously?  Do they know that knowledge is relative and that contradictions are a fact of life?  Can they integrate or synthesize different, sometimes contradictory information into a coherent whole?  Do they really get the big picture?  Have they really learned to think?
I am afraid that we have lost sight of the practicality of a liberal-arts-and-sciences style undergraduate degree.  A degree that is designed to teach students to evaluate and integrate information across content areas and that encourages them to gain some distance from which to view their beliefs—that’s a practical degree.  And if it makes them sophisticated learners capable of the type of graduate education that we should provide, then it is doubly practical.  What seems to me to be impractical is spending our graduate programs having to clean up after undergraduate programs that teach students to memorize definitions and lists and to depend upon cookbooks for solutions.

Practically speaking, we cannot get rid of all clinical information at the undergraduate level unless we make the SLP masters degree a three year program or require a Ph.D. for practice.  But we can make communication science the emphasis of our undergraduate education programs and infuse some information on disorders throughout the curriculum in a way that enhances the students’ understanding of normal processes.

Undergraduate degrees in psychology are highly valued both as generalist degrees and as preparation for graduate study in psychology.  In psychology, the undergraduate degree is a survey of the broad knowledge base of the discipline.  While they do require one or more courses on disorders, those are not methods courses and disorders is not the theme of the undergraduate major.  The disorders courses are used to enhance the students’ understanding of normal function, which is the emphasis of the degree.  What a difference from most undergraduate education in CSD.  We present information on normal processes, but typically in service to learning how to diagnose and treat disorders.  And a review of undergraduate catalogs shows that many programs skimp on it as much as possible.
We need to move the focus of our undergraduate degree programs to one of developing a comprehensive understanding of normal processes; we need to change our undergraduate curricula so that we spend the time on normal processes that they deserve.  The time is really right to do this.  With the increasing interest being paid to speech, language, and hearing by scientists in other areas, we need to exert ourselves as strong, scientifically-based programs.  Whether it be in our labs or in our classrooms, our departments need to be the centers on our campuses that own the important, hypothesis-driven research in speech, language, and hearing science.  If we do not, our discipline will come apart, splintering back into the various content areas from which it came and our profession will stand vulnerable to being booted down to technician status or supplanted entirely.  Although it seems an irony, the best thing for the profession as well as the discipline is for us to make sure that our undergraduate education programs are not pre-professional in nature.