Earlier this spring Inside Higher Education reported that the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was planning to close19 degree programs in 13 undergraduate majors, including traditional liberal arts majors like English, history, and all three foreign languages that it currently offers. The decision was tied to a need to better position the campus to attract new students. As the proposed restructuring document, Re-Imagining Our Curriculum for the Future, noted, “UW-Stevens Point has reached a moment in which the elimination of under-enrolled majors is the only realistic way to repair our budget and simultaneously fund the creation and expansion of programs with higher student demand.”
The closing of liberal arts majors is a very important development. It affects many faculty positions at the campus and the campus’s ability to attract high school graduates into its baccalaureate programs. The change also has implications for general education—what the Stevens Point calls its “core liberal arts curriculum.” The report notes:
We must resist the false choice between providing a broad, well-rounded education or narrow professional and vocational pathways. As one strategy, we will reimagine traditional liberal arts majors for students seeking applied learning to improve their career potential. Second, we will strengthen our core liberal arts curriculum. Preparing students for engaged citizenship, ensuring that they graduate as broadly educated and well-rounded lifelong learners, and equipping them with the kinds of professional skills that we know are essential for career success in any field—these are things we owe to all students regardless of major.
Stevens Point is not alone in wanting to re-envision its general education program. At Cornell University, a committee has worked for two years to develop a plan to re-invigorate the 15-year old general education program of its College of Arts and Sciences. Their final report notes that “the defining experience of the college’s liberal arts program is the opportunity to explore the breadth of our collective knowledge to inform, contextualize, and enhance studies beyond that final specialization.” It goes on to recommend replacing the standard “breadth and depth” distribution model with a more simplified approach, in which all students would be required to take one course from each of ten categories:
Arts and Literature
Ethics and the Mind
Science of Society
Statistics and Data Science
Symbolic and Mathematical Reasoning
In addition, students would take a first-year writing program and a “community-engaged learning” course, which might fall within with new Human Difference and Global Citizenship categories. College Dean Gretchen Ritter, who charged the committee back in 2016, noted that “ . . . the importance of understanding human difference and exploring what it means to be a global citizen—as well as how data science integrates with a variety of disciplines—widens the breadth and complements our core disciplines.”
At Reed College, student protest has led to reconsideration of Humanities 110, a foundational, team-taught humanities course required of all first-year students. A student protest group, “Reedies Against Racism,” argued that the course was too focused on white, male, European perspectives. The revised version will include four modules based on different historical eras and geographic locations, allowing faculty to address a range of humanistic questions through events and literature of different cultures, times, and places.
My alma mater, Penn State University, will this summer and fall implement a new six-credit “integrative studies” requirement for its general education program. As the university’s website notes, “The General Education curriculum will enable students to acquire skills, knowledge, and experiences for living in interconnected contexts, so they can contribute to making life better for others, themselves, and the larger world.” More than 40 “inter-domain” courses in diverse colleges have been approved to meet this requirement thus far. Colleges may also offer “linked” courses that meet the standard.
Defining the Purpose of General Education
These examples suggest that there is more behind the current interest in general education than budgetary constraints or wanting to appeal to a new generation of students. It is perhaps better seen as part of a broader change as higher education adapts to new dimensions of the society it serves. In The Meaning of General Education (Teachers College Press, 1988), I surveyed the evolution of general education from the early days of the Industrial Revolution through the first three quarters of the twentieth century, drawing on the ideas of Alexander Meikeljohn, Robert Maynard Hutchins, John Dewey, and others, as well as curricular innovations at Yale University, the University Wisconsin, Columbia University, Bennington College, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Minnesota, and Harvard University. The result was the following description of a guiding vision for general education:
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 attributes, skills, and values so that the students may maintain the learning process over a lifetime and function as self-fulfilled individuals and as full participants in a society committee 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)
As we look ahead, it is worth noting that the general education curriculum as we have tended to see it over the years, reflects higher education’s response to the massive changes brought about by the start of the Industrial Revolution almost two centuries ago. As the new economy emerged, colleges and universities added research to their mission and greatly diversified their curricula to include majors in business, engineering, and technology, as well as the new social sciences—social psychology and sociology, for instance—that emerged from the social challenges brought about by immigration and urbanization. It also stimulated new institutional arrangements, as universities organized themselves around disciplines, resulting in academic departments, schools, and colleges based on an ever-increasing array of academic specialties. This organizational structure led to the distribution model, a way of introducing students to the range of subjects taught at the institution. The model tended to be reinforced by the institution’s budget model, which distributed funds back to departments based on the number of courses offered and students enrolled. General education courses attract larger student enrollments, which helps to fund graduate teaching assistant positions, which, in turn, supports the graduate program, etc. Moving general education away from the distribution model could have broad implications for how the overall academic endeavor is supported. Thus, institutions tend to innovate cautiously. A recent report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities notes that “general education redesign is growing as a priority” among member institutions and that “AAC&U member institutions are as likely to use the distribution model for their general education programs today as in the past, though nearly all use other integrative features in combination with a distribution model.”
That said, it is also important to recognize that, if one role of general education is to prepare students to participate effectively as citizens and professionals, we must acknowledge that today’s institutions are being re-shaped by another revolution—the global information society that has emerged in the 21st century. As the “Reedies” at Reed College argued, it is no longer sufficient to prepare students to live in a white, Euro-centric Western Civilization; today’s students must be prepared to be effective citizens and professional leaders in a global culture. How institutions define the scope and depth of general education experiences in the humanities, philosophy, and history will have a major impact on how well their graduates are prepared to live, work, and thrive in a truly global information society. We need to ask how important it will be to our students’ future to know about the social, philosophical, and scientific implications of artificial intelligence, quantum physics, and other building blocks of the next generation of the information society. We are entering a generation of innovation in this arena.