Addendum to Mark Smith’s Post on General Education

Posted on April 25, 2013 by


I keep getting side-tracked by the interesting posts and articles either written by my colleaugues or mentioned by them.  I was reading the Hepner article mentioned by Mark Smith when I was “inspired” to post a blog, only to find Mark had beaten me.  Ah, but only for a time.  Let me say first that I agree with what Mark wrote and I only intend to supplement it. 

I have had students and advisees who have had exactly the same attitude mentioned by Michael Hepner in his article “Good Thing I’m Not a History Major.”  Sometimes parents have the same attitude, asking “what can my son or daughter DO with a history major?”  Much of what we hear and see is centered on the goal of getting first a good grade and second of getting the good (read well-paying) job.  Even where the disposition is les materialistic, the complaint runs something like, “Why do I have to take___________?” or “Is there a way to CLEP out of ___________?”  I am know the cost issue with university today and I am sypmathetic.  But given the cost, as I see it, the general education core of a curriculum is essential to provide the value for the cost, even if the student-consumer doesn’t realize it at the time.

As Hepner and Smith both asked by implication, how do we expect a young person to know how to think broadly and deeply, to be aware of historical events and ideas that influence culture today, to be able to think logically (what I take to be meant by “critical thinking” skills), to write cogently, coherently, to have enough of a sense of the “way the world works” to be flexible and creative while remaining logical.  Secondary schools no longer do this.  Only a relatively few families (mostly home schooled) do this.  It is left to the colleges and universities.  If universities churn out only narrowly trained technocrats, people who can perform one or a few related tasks, then what happens when those graduates have to face society with all of its complex issues–voting, participating in other ways, engaging meaningfully(?) in their churches, understanding the issue sof the day accurately, etc.–and do not know who or what to believe, yet have not themselves learned how to think?  This is purely apart from being able to work well for their employer, to solve problems, to adjust to changing situations, even to move from one job to another that is very different. 

Who will carry the banner for general education?  First we need to understand what such a program ought to look like, or else it becomes or continues to be empire building and turf protection.  “Without a vision the people perish.”  Then we need courageous leadership to be willing to move the university forward with the vision–a board of trustees that embraces the vision, an administration that understands first that the central mssion is education with the highest quality possible, a faculty that is united (note that word “UNIversity”) under that banner and can see, even if it sometimes costs their own discipline,  the need.  Faculty especially have been lax in this.  They have fought for their own pet courses, they have denigrated a general education core in general, they have called for its reduction, they have capitulated to a smogasbord of useless Gen Ed courses (or even promoted the idea).  The risks are real, but the rewards to students and faculty are tremendous.  In the longer run, the benefit to society is undeniable.  The cost to society will be much higher in the long run if we continue to dilute general education.