Back in the 1980s, I wrote a book, The Meaning of General Education: The Emergence of a Curriculum Paradigm, that traced the idea of general education from the early days of the Industrial Revolution through the social revolutions of the twentieth century. In this and future postings in this series, I will explore the opportunity to create a new kind of general education that will meet the needs of today’s society.
The Meaning of General Education described how our ideas about general education evolved in the wake of major social, economic, technological, and geopolitical changes, from the Yale University faculty’s defense of liberal education in 1828 through the rise of the research university and industrialization and the wars and social upheavals of the 20th century. After surveying the evolution of general education through 150 years of technological, economic, social, and philosophical turmoil, I summarized by noting, first, what general education is not. It is not simply another name for liberal education or interdisciplinarity or a prescribed curriculum. Instead, the innovations of the 20th century suggested a definition along these lines:
General education is a comprehensive, self-consciously developed and maintained program that develops in individual students the attitude of inquiry; the skills of problem solving; the individual and community values associated with a democratic society; and the knowledge needed to apply these attitudes, skills, and values so that the students may maintain the learning process over a lifetime and function as a self-fulfilled individuals and as full participants in a society committed to change through democratic processes. As such it is marked by its comprehensive scope, by its emphasis on specific and real problems and issues of immediate concern to students and society, by its concern with the needs of the future, and by the application of democratic principles in the methods and procedures of education as well as the goals of education (p. 5).
These goals suggest an active learning environment that is problem-centered, research-based, and inquiry-oriented. I noted that general education curricula share these attributes: (1) they are self-consciously purposeful, so that the goals guide every aspect of the curriculum; (2) they are comprehensive, not in the sense of a “survey of knowledge” but in the sense that the goals are reflected in all aspects of the curriculum, both content and method; and (3) they are “intimately concerned with democratic processes and with the needs of a democratic society” (p.188).
Many institutions—especially research-oriented colleges universities—have tried to meet their general education mission through a “distribution” curriculum that ensures that students receive, in addition to their major area, s some basic skills—writing, speaking, math—along with exposure to knowledge as it is organized within the university, with many options to allow students to select courses that meet their interests. However, this approach fails to address the core goal of general education: to purposefully prepare students to be self-fulfilled, full participants of the society in which they live.
One thing that makes the distribution model so stable is that it has become embedded in the budget model of colleges and universities. The model by which academic departments are funded usually includes a factor that reflects student enrollment in courses taught by departmental faculty. As a result, departments tend to hold on dearly to introductory courses that meet distribution requirements (i.e., 6 credits in the social sciences, 9 credits in the sciences, etc.) and that attract students who are not majoring in that department. These courses, in turn, provides jobs—and financial support—for graduate assistants, thus helping to maintain the department’s graduate program. It brings to mind the anthropology department at one university where I consulted some years back. The department had created courses that fulfilled distribution requirements in three different lower division areas—Introduction to Physical Anthropology (met a science requirement), Introduction to Social Anthropology (met a social science requirement), and Introduction to Human Anthropology (met at humanities requirement).
I would argue that, even within a distribution system, at least half of the general education requirement should consist of problem-centered courses that engage students in understanding and addressing social issues through inquiry, gathering and evaluating information, and applying the resulting knowledge to a specific problem or issue.
The Need for a Fresh Approach
There are several reasons why it is time for institutions to take a fresh look at the role of general education in their undergraduate curricula. Many public institutions have suffered in recent years from a perception that higher education is more of a “private good”—a benefit to the individual student—rather than a “public good”—a benefit to society as a whole. This suggests that higher education is emphasizing (or at least is perceived as emphasizing) professional/vocational education—preparing students for careers—at the expense of preparing them for productive lives as members of their civic communities. Beyond that, however, we must recognize that the world itself has changed.
A quick historical analogy might be helpful. From the middle ages through the late 18th century, the classical liberal arts model worked well. It was, after all, an age when higher education was limited to preparing a small elite for careers in law and ministry. The Industrial Revolution—and the dramatic social changes that accompanied it—changed all that. With industrialization came new professions—engineers, scientists, managers, teachers (to educate children of immigrant workers)—and new academic disciplines, like social psychology, statistics, and sociology that were needed to help institutions respond to immigration, urbanization, and a new economic and social context. The twentieth century saw social revolutions—the rise of communism and socialism, for instance—a new economic order, and social dislocations—two world wars, the great depression, and advances in science—that had not been seen before. These changes drove experiments in general education throughout the first half of the century.
Today, as the Information Revolution matures, we are again faced with massive social, economic, scientific, and technological change. Some examples:
Globalization By the middle of the twentieth century, the old boundaries between East and West had been erased. In the intervening years, politics, trade, migration, business logistics, and technology have served to create a truly global society. Nations have not yet learned how to live in that society yet, though the experience of wars from Vietnam to Iraq has suggested that the old rules no longer apply. However, it is clear that the economies of nations are increasingly interdependent and that social traditions are being challenged in new ways.
Climate Change Signs of global warming can no longer be ignored. Climate change will present dramatic challenges in the coming decades, spurring the need for international cooperation in the face of massive human migration from low-lying communities, changes in the global food supply, etc.
Technological Change Baby Boomers were the last generation to be born before the technological revolution that brought us, first, satellite communication, and, more recently, the worldwide web. Today’s students were born into a world in which information is generally available and in which individuals can communicate with and form communities among people from anywhere in the world. The Internet has transformed work, has created new ways for people to collaborate and share information, and has opened new horizons for people across the world, providing new ways to understand issues and solve problems.
Community Before the technological revolution, “community” meant a group of people living in the same geographic space whose lives were interdependent. Today, technology has created gaps in that old community, as we are increasingly dependent on people who may live across the globe. That same technology has allowed us to create cyber-communities of people who may live anywhere but who find common ground by focusing on a few common interests. In this environment, the question of how we respond to people who are unlike ourselves becomes important and, increasingly, complex.
The challenge for educators—and for the general education curriculum—is to help students learn how to live and prosper in a highly inter-reliant global society and economy in which technology and mass migration and inter-dependent international supply chains are redefining “community.”
Future postings on this topic will look at this challenge from several perspectives, keeping in mind the underlying general education goal of integrating content and method. This will include challenges in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, as well as pedagogical opportunities offered by technology to directly engage students in curricula that encourage inquiry, collaboration, and problem-solving as students prepare to live in a complex global society.