Friday, June 24, 2016

The Future of General Education, Part Three: The Sciences

The role of the physical and social sciences in a general education program is a knotty issue for curriculum planners.  On one hand, higher education has become sensitized to the need for graduates to have a better foundation in disciplines that contribute to STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—skills that are increasingly needed in today’s workplace.  On the other hand, the current distribution curriculum—which typically allows students to meet their general education requirements by taking basic introductory courses in math and various science and social science disciplines—often fails to either prepare students for advanced study in these disciplines or to develop knowledge and skills that allow them to be more effective citizens in a technology-oriented society.  In fact, many students are able to avoid taking these courses because they simply duplicate materials learned in high school.
            Institutions are thus faced with two curricular issues: (1) how to prepare students with the scientific knowledge and skills needed to be successful in more advanced courses in the science disciplines and (2) how to prepare students to be effective citizens in a technological information society.   Both are important to the undergraduate curriculum, but it is the second issue that is essential for how an institution defines general education.
STS:  The Sciences in General Education
As I noted in the first posting in this series, the purpose of general education 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.”   The science education community has experimented for several decades with an interdisciplinary approach that addresses this goal:  the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) movement.  Wikipedia defines STS as “the study of how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these in turn affect society, politics, and culture.”   Harvard University notes that STS merges two kinds of scholarship:
The first consists of research on the nature and practices of science and technology (S&T). Studies in this genre approach S&T as social institutions possessing distinctive structures, commitments, practices, and discourses that vary across cultures and change over time. This line of work addresses questions like the following: is there a scientific method; what makes scientific facts credible; how do new disciplines emerge; and how does science relate to religion? The second stream concerns itself more with the impacts and control of science and technology, with particular focus on the risks that S&T may pose to peace, security, community, democracy, environmental sustainability, and human values. Driving this body of research are questions like the following: how should states set priorities for research funding; who should participate, and how, in technological decisionmaking; should life forms be patented; how should societies measure risks and set safety standards; and how should experts communicate the reasons for their judgments to the public?

The goal of STS teaching, notes the Harvard website, “seeks to promote cross-disciplinary integration, civic engagement, and critical thinking.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Penn State University was a leader in STS innovation, under the guidance of Dr. Rustum Roy.  I was involved in several courses that used television documentaries as the basis for discussion of the inter-relationships among several disciplines.  One course, The Behavioral Revolution, looked how behavior modification can be applied at the societal level.  For instance, one of the documentaries look at how the then-new “planned community” of Columbia, Maryland, was using behavior modification to encourage bicycling and walking rather than automobile traffic.  Another course, The Finite Earth, examined limits to resources and the ethical dimensions of social policy.  Central to the course was the idea of an “ethical community,” which examined how a community defines who is affected by a decision and, thus, who should be at the table when decisions are made.
The STS approach to general education brings together both the hard sciences and the social sciences around specific societal issues to help students learn how to address problems in society.  It is a model that would seem also to have potential for the humanities. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Some Advice to the News Media this Election Year

As the Presidential race moves from the primary elections to the general election, this might be a good time to say a few words about media coverage of the candidates.  Media—especially the cable news networks—coverage of the primary elections raised some questions about journalism in this era.  One of the candidates, Donald Trump, has noted that the heavy media coverage that he has received as an outspoken celebrity essentially served as free advertising, allowing him to save a great deal of money on paid advertising.  Similarly, CNN, in particular, seemed to favor Trump in the primaries by always ensuring that a Trump campaign surrogate was at the table when his candidacy was discussed.   
The challenge for the general election period—from now through November—is to ensure that the news media function as journalists and not as either purposeful or accidental advocates of one campaign or another.  Some thoughts:
·      News media should refrain from showing images of the candidates every time they are being discussed.  This is free advertising for the candidate, regardless of what is being said.  It also distracts the viewer from attending to what the journalist or experts are saying.  Keep the focus on the journalistic process and the speakers.  If you must show images of the candidates in the background, given them equal time on the screen.
·       CNN’s fairly regular practice of always having a candidate’s surrogate on set during analysis discussions should be avoided.  The result of having surrogates constantly on set is to destroy any sense of journalistic objectivity.  Instead, focus on what journalists or objective analysts have to say about the news.
·       Honor the ideal of equal time.
·      Refrain from carrying speeches “live.”  Instead, record them, fact-check them, and then report on them.  Otherwise, the news simply becomes a promotional channel for whichever candidate is talking.
·      Fact-checking is a critical role for the news media in this election, given the lack of trust the the public has for either candidate.  Reporters must see themselves as giving the public the truth, not just passing on gossip or name-calling.  I was glad to see a bit of this on MSNBC today.
·      Do side-by-side comparisons of proposed policies and positions.  Show people where the candidates differ—and how they differ—and where they are the same.  In other words, make policy positions important to viewers by taking them seriously.
There was a time—when network news operated within the structure of large entertainment networks—when corporate bosses kept a distance from their news operations in order to give them some credibility.  This seems to have faded in today’s cable environment.  This year, though, we need, more than ever, serious journalism that educates voters.  Here’s hoping . . .

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Future of General Education, Part Two: The Humanities

Defining the role of the humanities may be one of the most difficult parts of designing a general education curriculum, for the humanities have played differing roles in the undergraduate curriculum over the past two hundred years.  Originally, of course, the humanities were the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum.  In 1824, the Yale College faculty defined the goal of this curriculum as “the discipline and furniture of the mind.”   As the 19th century advanced, research took a dominant role in the lives of faculty and the university began to organize itself around disciplines.  At the same time, the university became focused on preparing students for an increasingly broad range of professions.  The result was the “distribution” approach to the undergraduate curriculum, with humanities being taught largely through a series of introductory courses in literature, history, and philosophy.  In the 1930s, the “Great Books” attempted to make the humanities the center of a general education program that focused on the cultural heritage of great works of western civilization. 
The latter half of the 20th century saw other experiments with approaches that took different approaches to the humanities.   I discussed several of these in detail in The Meaning of General Education.  Here are some snapshots: 
*  Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University began as a response to the state of society at the end of World War I.  Its purpose, as stated in the 1920-21catalog, was to enable the student “to understand the civilization of his own day and to participate effectively in it.” 
*The Experimental College, created by Alexander Meiklejohn at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s, with the goal, as Meiklejohn described it of “the building up of self-direction . . . trying to create or cultivate intelligence, capable o f eing applied in any field of scholarly work.”  The primary task, he wrote, was “the education of comment men . . .in terms of the kind of thinking which all men are called upon to do in the enduring relations of life.”  The freshman year curriculum focused on ancient Greece, the foundation of classical humanism, while the sophomore year focused on 19th century (and, later, 20th century) American culture, with the idea that the program would help students understand how different people in different times approached similar problems.  One can argue that problem solving was the underlying goal of the curriculum.
*The Great Books Program evolved out of what John Maynard Hutchins described as a “permanent studies” program based on the idea that “it is impossible to understand any subject or to comprehend the contemporary world” without understanding the ideas contained in the great books of western civilization.
Over the past few decades, however, the humanities have seen rough times.  As the demand for humanities graduates has declined, so has the central role of humanism in the curriculum.  At the same time, as the distribution system has re-asserted itself, the institution’s role of teaching the humanities has declined as institutions increasingly encourage the transfer of credits from high school and community college curricula to meet general education requirements. 
That said, institutions recently have made some interesting experiments that may point the way.  For instance, in October 2015, Tania Lombrozo wrote  about two University of California-Berkeley faculty who offer the humanities as a way to “open our eyes to the distinctive ways that people in different places and in different times, in different cultures and in different groups, have imagined what it means to be human."  Their interdisciplinary approach “is the study of the different ways that human beings have chosen or been able to live their lives as human beings.”
What, then, should be the role of the humanities in a 21st century general education curriculum?  As the Berkeley innovation suggests, the answer lies, in part at least, in an understanding that the basic role of the humanities is to help students understand how people understand what it means to be human—to live in a human community in particular times and particular places.  At the same time, we need to acknowledge that, in the global information society, the experience of ancient Greece is no longer the sole source of inspiration.  We no longer live within a culture defined by the traditions of western civilization, but in a diverse global society.  As William Irwin Thompson noted in Transforming History: A New Curriculum for a Planetary Culture (Landisfarne Books, 2009), “Humanity is now experiencing the release of heat in a phase change because our whole matrix of identity is shifting, from a culture of economic acquisitiveness and patriotic fervor to a new planetary culture in which science and spirituality are the diploid parents of a new matrix of consciousness” (p. 24).  The goal of the humanities in the general education curriculum must be to prepare students to live in a multi-cultural global society in which the actions of individuals are shaped by and connected to the community by technology.
With that in mind, the humanities component of a general education curriculum should provide students with an understanding of how people from different times and cultures addressed similar problems and, then, have the student use those understandings to address current problems facing society today.   The specific course design would vary based on the institution’s mission, the student population involved, and other factors.  However, several key elements should be presents:  The program should be problem-centered, with a problem statement providing a context for reading key documents;  the program should be inquiry oriented, giving students an opportunity to explore documents to find ideas that can be used to address the problem; and the program should be interdisciplinary, allowing students to see the issue of multiple perspectives (i.e., historical, philosophical, social).
For example, a humanities course might use historical and philosophical studies to help students understand how people from different cultures in history reacted to similar problems—the rise of agricultural communities, for instance, or the emergence empires due to territorial conquest.   Then, the students could work on how those experiences might inform how our culture could best respond to a current issue, such as mass migrations due to political revolution or climate change.  Some institutions may be able to partner with peers in other cultures to use online technology to allow students to interact across cultures to find compatible solutions.
Ultimately, the key issue is that a general education curriculum should incorporate an active, collaborative, research-based, problem-centered approach to the humanities as opposed to simple survey courses on western philosophy, history, etc.