(Not 95) Theses on General Education Reform, etc.

General Education reform has a long history in higher education of being a no-win zone. Correct that: in any given GenEd campaign there is often a player or group of players who manage to get something out of it (e.g., an administrator or administrator want-to-be who gets credit for shepherding the program through to approval (and to be fair, it’s probably good training) or a department that gets a influx of resources it will never lose (even when GE is next revised) or sometimes a group of faculty who have opted out of discipline-based work and now rise to institutional importance).
The kudos and benefits, though, are almost never dependent on whether the program actually works and there is never any accountability for problems associated with the diversion of time, energy, and resources required by the program.
I share the Camelot-esque urge to champion the life of the mind, to fight against the forces of mediocrity in the modern world, really educate our students for the 21st century, and just generally to work for a better tomorrow, but I’ve seen this windmill tilted at too many times not to offer some ideas, collected over the years, about GenEd revisions. Offered partly in the spirit of provocation and healthy debate, but mostly on the (naive) optimistic belief that it IS possible to do better at higher education reform than is usually the case. The problem is that the ruts in the road are deep ones indeed.
    1. Almost no one will ever select a college on the basis of a general education program unless the program is that there are no GE requirements.
    2. The process usually begins with someone saying “everyone knows the current system is broken and needs to be updated.” Ever was it so. Ever will it be.
    3. After the program is in place, students and faculty will invest a lot of time and energy “getting around the rules” to make individual educations make sense.
    4. GenEd gets revamped every decade or so. Neither the stuff of GenEd nor the nature of students really changes THAT much. Thus the “new” is mostly recapitulations and recombinations of old. 
    5. Where is cost-benefit analysis when you need it? How much goes into the process? How much does it cost to implement? What’s the outcome? Listen and you’ll hear that the value can’t be measured.
    1. GenEd is an introduction to the breadth of inquiry in the university?
    2. GenEd is a set of skills and areas of knowledge that every graduate should possess?
    3. GenEd should inculcate a set of values that specialized training in majors omit?
    4. GenEd is basic skills that are necessary to succeed in specialized training in majors?
    5. GenEd should inculcate ideas students need as citizen but not taught in the major?
    6. GenEd should insure that students do not graduate as narrow vocational specialists?
    7. GenEd should be material common to all/most majors to make education more efficient?
    1. The design of a GenEd program is an organizational process, not an intellectual one.
    2. GenEd rules shape/channel resources (enrollment, FTE, budget); much of the conversation is actually about that.
    3. No GE program worth doing will please all. A compromise no one opposes is likely crap. 
    4. Who is GenEd for? What is GenEd for? Who benefits? Who pays? Write the answers out.
    5. The problem with the current program is usually implementation, not concept.  “GE is a mess” is unhelpful starting point; it’s a mess because of implementation, and the same people will implement the new one so it likely will have the same implementation failures.
    6. Least Common Denominator is very weak conceptual foundation for GenEd. Be skeptical about “what EVERY student should have.”
    1. Many proposals for GenEd translate as (1) students should have my (our!) values (2) every student should study what I teach.
      • General rule: if it’s my pet peeve or my pet project, it’s not general education.
      • Leaders should discourage “my ‘baby’ is the be all and end all” talk. 
      • Perhaps a simple rule that you cannot advocate for your own area as part of GE.
      • Keep track of which disciplines’ are most certain their subject is essential.
    2. Alternatively, use bottom up approach. Ask each “major” to write down: “A student of X needs some W and Y as foundations for, extensions of, and complements to X.” Encourage inventive thinking. Then build on that database.
    1. Look to history: GenEd as contrasted with major course of study. 
    2. Liberal arts is not same as humanities and fine arts.
    3. How come it’s not a crisis that art students can’t do math?
    4. “The Core” and related terms mean different things in different institutional contexts. 
    5. The “outside the course” rhetoric in higher ed discourse is sort of “anti-professor.” 
    6. When did “community engagement” become a fundamental responsibility of educational institutions? Why did this happen? Ask questions; don’t take things for granted.
    1. Let’s be at a little skeptical about imposing morality/ideology via “requiring everyone to take a course on X.” Very hard to find examples in history of this working well.
    2. Best test of a GE concept might be thought experiment: would it work if not required? 
    3. All of the “values,” “mindsets,” “orientations,” etc. that one is inclined to require courses on because they are institutionally important should be a part of everything we teach. If not, then they are NOT actually institutionally important, you are just wishing they were.
    1. Nobody knows what critical thinking is. Perhaps start by figuring out what we mean by it.
    2. Ask anyone who says “it’s a problem that…” to explain how they know that it is a problem and how we could detect when it was not a problem anymore.
    3. Purge all documents of “red herrings” (things that might very well be true and good but which distract from matter at hand). For example “faculty need support for digital technologies and data management in the classroom” or “need to acknowledge how hard faculty already work blah blah blah.”
    4. Perhaps outlaw any sentence that included the phrase “we used to…”
    5. “Competencies” is a buzz word. Interrogate buzzwords; don’t parrot buzzwords.
    1. Arguments for foreign languages often amount to (1) other schools do it; or (2) it’s good for you (plus, usually, unsaid, “it was good for me”). Maybe, but, as champions of critical thinking, we should do better at motivating what would be a really big student and institutional investment and diversion of resources. 
    2. Studying a language or going on a study abroad may not provide “global literacy” – it often turns one into a fan of one country, region, language, etc. It may transcend localism, but it’s not necessarily “global” per se.
    3. Do students currently chose to take foreign languages? Have the foreign language departments managed to enroll to capacity? Find out why before trying to accomplish this with a requirement. 
    4. Ask why would we require, say, four semesters of this one of area of learning but not others?
    1. What is the actual evidence that things like “community engagement” are really something that we are not doing enough of? How do you know?
    2. The future of higher ed for small second tier institutions will be strongly based on transfer students. Almost all GenEd will of necessity be something we accept as already done as a part of the transfer articulation agreements. This is likely simply part of the physics of the future of higher education in the US for many schools.
    3. Every time someone suggests “X” is our core value, ask two things. First, does X really distinguish us from other places? Second, can we ethically have students on average incur $30k in debt for an education based on X? Is that what families sacrifice for?
    1. Is your accreditation agency dominated by people from institutions you admire?  Are its publications ones you look to for inspiration?  What good is likely to come from basing a curriculum on their concepts? The answer is one thing: it is a path to a “compromise” that would not be a mere medley of all the competing ideas we faculty have. This might be important, but be clear about it.
    2. Are you impressed by the ideas of the folks who are pushing assessment nationally? Do they strike you as the right sources of new GE ideas?
    3. Are the thought leaders from American K12 education who have started to work in higher ed space the ones you would turn to for ideas on improving college and university education?
    1. Institute multiple general education requirement schemes. See which ones students opt for. See which ones seem to deliver best results.
    2. Have a fully articulated general education program but don’t make it required. Can you persuade students it is a good idea.
    3. Structure your requirements as “do at least 4 of these 7 things” and keep track of what people do and engage in some serious research about why they make those choices.
    4. Provide a strict, cohort based option (you are given a schedule of GE courses when you start and the group takes them together over a few years) and see how many students sign up for it and what effects it has.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com. I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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