Today I went to an interesting meeting during which we discussed ideas for general education. One of the difficulties is that we university and college folks have a lot of self-interest tied up in what we teach, and the history of general education requirements is full of history.
I don't have a clear memory of my undergraduate general education requirements. I was a science major, so I have no memory at all of what my school required by way of general education science classes. I took so many science classes that the general education part wasn't even on my radar.
I remember the humanities type requirements. I entered college with ten credits of English, and didn't take even one other English class; so I'm guessing those ten credits counted for something. I took a couple foreign language classes early on, and those counted. Maybe my cultural anthropology class counted for something.
The one requirement that was hard for me to fill, that took conscious effort, was an upper level humanities class. I felt that was unfair because science majors had to take an upper level class in the humanities, while the humanities types only had to take the easy lower division science classes, the "physics without calculus" type classes. Because I'd already (mis)spent a good part of my youth reading 19th century Russian novels (not that I understood them, but I got the basic plots), I signed up for a Russian Culture class. It was a less than wonderful experience for me in more ways than one, and from my perspective now, it can't have been fun for the prof, either. I was the only person in the class who wasn't a Russian major. So even though our readings were in English, they had a world of knowledge beyond me. And since what I really wanted to learn was how to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I wasn't really getting what I wanted, anyways.
On the other side, when our English majors end up in a beginning chemistry class for a required lab experience, I'm not sure it's a great help to them. They're in class with people who want to be science majors in all sorts of ways. How many of those science majors are served well by the same class? Does a geology major need the same chemistry preparation as a genetics major, or as a food sciences major?
When I think of my fantasy then, what would general education look like? In my fantasy world, I don't have to worry about departmental boundaries or such.
I've given myself 7 courses to play with to start. What do I want every single college graduate to leave college understanding?
1. Ethics - a course that will introduce students to ethical thinking and decision making.
2. Philosophy of science/scientific method - a course that will teach students what science is and how scientific knowledge gets investigated, demonstrated, disseminated, understood.
3. Statistical understanding - a course that will teach students statistical concepts and how to understand statistics when they see them in use in contemporary arguments.
4. Economics and policy - a macro-economics type course that will help students understand how taxation, banking, stocks, and government financial institutions are organized and used.
5. Language and texts - a course that will teach students about rhetorical practices and textual production, that will teach them to read contemporary arguments critically; the course will also teach them to think about their language linguistically.
6. Intercultural experience - a course that will defamiliarize students' own culture and teach them to think about the breadth of human experience.
7. Making Art - a course in which students will make art (that could be music, graphic stuff, etc) and learn about that art in human experience.
So, there it is, the Bardiac general education experience, to be taken by all majors. In my fantasy university, people from different departments could teach sections of the basic course in broad fields, though economics and philosophy are pretty much going to have a hold on a couple of them. But a language and texts course could be taught by philosophers, linguists, literature folks, anthropologists, and so forth.
Do students need a lab science course? I know they often feel that they learn a lot from lab courses. I took a ton of lab courses, but my best understanding of the scientific method and philosophy of science came from a non-lab science course. If I'd have had that sort of course as a first year student, instead of in my final term, I'd have learned much more in my other science courses. So I'm not sure they need a lab course.
I also haven't put in any foreign language requirement. I find foreign languages challenging and intensely interesting. But I don't think most students learn enough language to actually speak, and focusing on the language means they don't focus on other things.
When I think back over my early education, the most useful courses were statistics and introductory paleontology. In my later education, when I went back to school, but before I focused on English lit, then I'd point to my economics classes as most useful. With art history coming not too far behind, because it gave me a sense of a historical framework.
I'm interested in hearing what general education type courses other people found most useful or memorable. What general education experiences would you want all students to have in common when they leave college?