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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rethinking General Education in Tight Economic Times


Today’s newspaper reported on the second Penn State undergraduate program to be evaluated for closure through the curriculum review process that is now underway.  Both programs—Science, Technology, and Society Program and Integrative Arts—share some important traits: (1) they are both interdisciplinary (STS is also inter-college) and (2) they began as general education initiatives that evolved into undergraduate majors.

It probably is natural that this evolution would take place.  A research university is a highly decentralized culture where the academic department is the basic family unit.  Faculty members who create these initiatives tend to be broad thinkers who identify with the broader culture outside academia rather than with the family unit.  However, after the initial wave of innovation, faculty members in programs like these tend to create a new family unit within the culture of the institution.  Interdisciplinary initiatives become their own departments; once-radical views adjust, however uncomfortably, to the older culture.   Some ideas—area studies programs are a good example—find long-term homes in a college.  Others never quite fit in. 

Perhaps the part of the curriculum that suffers most from this is general education, for which these programs were launched in the first place.   One solution might be to focus more attention on interdisciplinarity in general education.  This has been done at Penn State several times over the years.  As an undergraduate student in the 1960s, some of my best general education courses were interdisciplinary courses in the Humanities.  There were also a series of interdisciplinary courses in the sciences:  Physical Sciences 07 and 08, Biological Sciences 01, 02, and 03, and others.  These courses provided a good overview of the liberal arts and science worldviews for nonmajors.  They were focused on understanding humanistic and scientific thinking, but not necessarily how those ways of thinking could help us live a better life.  The old idea of general education as the “distribution” part of the undergraduate curriculum was reinforced:  general education was about getting to know something about disciplines that were not in your major. 

There is another view of general education.   In this view, the majors and minors prepare students for the professions, but general education prepares students to be productive citizens and happy individuals.   This kind of general education is naturally interdisciplinary, because it is focused on the external world and its problems, rather than on the traditional structure of the institution.  This approach took root in the first half of the twentieth century.  Columbia’s Contemporary Civilizations Program and Chicago’s Great Books Program are two examples.  A truly interdisciplinary general education program would follow in the path of these groundbreaking programs and, at the same time, provide an environment in which new ideas could flourish across disciplines.

As institutions revisit their curricula to find savings, they should also step back and look more broadly at the purpose of the curriculum.  General education serves a different purpose than do the majors and minors.  An interdisciplinary general education, envisioned as preparing students to be productive citizens, would allow institutions to protect some space for innovation while also avoiding the creation of un-productive majors.  Perhaps this economy gives us an occasion for a fresh look at general education.