Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Fantasy Time - General Education

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?


  1. By far the most useful undergrad class I took was Logic. Understanding arguments, fallacies, inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning taught me how to think. Outside of work, I have used those skills in making major life decisions like buying a house -- I was better able to separate the emotional from the practical. I have also used those skills to define and support my political stance and my religious (or lack of) convictions. I can't think of another class that I took as an undergrad that had and still has such an impact on my life skills.

  2. I'm a returning student who just changed her major from biology to economics because of the occupational outlook for someone with a biological science degree. Like you, I loved my science courses fiercely but in the end, knowing the theoretical framework behind scientific discovery has helped me the most.

    My current university has a very complex series of general education requirements one must fulfill in order to graduate. With the soaring cost of tuition, I think a pared down list of broad competencies such as what you have outlined is of much more service to students and society. Furthermore, it could be standardized across both four and two year schools which frees up the ever increasing number of transfer students to undertake more relevant course work at the university level. This would give instructors an opportunity to stretch their mental muscles as well and interact with perhaps a different student segment than they normally would.

    I am really excited by ideas such as this being examined. Best of luck to you and the rest of the committee.

  3. I vote with Christine. I believe that a basic logic, reasoning, or critical thinking class would be vital for a good rounded education. I also have a bit of experience teaching these classes. It is the one class that students, no matter what their major, always remember, even if they do not do especially well. In fact, I once had a student who had failed the class come and thank me, because despite failing, they believed that it was the most helpful class they had taken in their entire time at University.

    Another reason for advocating this is that I have come across otherwise highly educated faculty members, with astoundingly weak reasoning skills, to the point that it is almost scary. Indeed, it is my strong commitment to trying to get people to think better, that has motivated my series of blog posts under the general banner of 'Better Reasoning'. I recommend this series to anyone interested in learning a bit more about clear reasoning (sorry for the shameless plug).

    The CP

  4. I think that a year-long philosophy course that has a good section on ethics, basic logic and epistemology/philosophy of science would work well in the curriculum.

    The one thing that really irritates me about my college's current transfer curriculum is that they call critical thinking "infused", i.e. that if you take all the other courses, you'll be able to think critically -- but, surprise, at the end they can't think critically. They made this move to avoid political infighting, but it shorted the students an important set of skills.

  5. I'm a graduate of Columbia's famed Core Curriculum and I have to say I'm a pretty big fan of it, especially the common courses that everyone takes: Contemporary Civilization (1 year of key texts in western philosophy and intellectual history), Humanities: Masterpieces of Western Lit (1 year) also know as "Lit Hum"; "Art Hum" (1 semester); and "Music Hum" (1 semester), plus the composition course then called "Logic and Rhetoric." Then there were the requirements that could be satisfied with various classes: 2 years of a foreign language (I tested out); 1 year of science (I think it's now 2); and a year of non-western cultures. (Yup, that's right -- no math. But I took Calculus anyway.)

    There were a lot of science classe for "non-scientists," but the ones I took certainly weren't guts, and they included heavy doses of scientific method as it applied to those fields. But they didn't assume more than senior-level H.S. science; if you needed to know some basic O-Chem, for instance, the class taught it to you, the class taught it to you. A lot of the humanities types struggled with these classes while jerks like me who'd taken AP science threw off the curve.

    But what most people really struggled with -- including the scientists -- was Music Hum. A lot of GPAs suffered from that course, and I think that's a good thing. That class settled, once and for all, the idea that the arts and humanities are somehow intrinsically "easy" or just about how you "feel." The Music Hum profs were sticklers for technical precision and the class demanded abstract thinking. I think every Gen Ed curriculum should have such a music class!

    But, as much as I loved the Core and have found it continuously useful over the course of my career and life (when The Tick makes an Illiad joke, I get it! Te-hee!), there's one thing that's missing from it and from your list as well:

    History and historical thinking.

    Since the Hum and CC classes took vaguely New Critical, ahistorical approaches -- you learn form but not so much historical contexts -- historical methods were even actually undervalued by this curriculum. Since historical thinking isn't really natural to humans, and since most college students have a foreshortened sense of what "old" means, and since most lame H.S. history classes make you think that history=memorizing dates, I think an introduction to historical methods class, with content from whatever period and area the given prof specializes in, is key. I love *I* could have used it.

    OK, nuff said. Sorry for the long comment.

  6. Er, the last sentence of my penultimate paragraph was supposed to say "I *know* I could have used it." What a weird typo.

  7. Anonymous9:29 AM

    How about auto repair? I could've used that.

  8. My university has moved recently to a system of "knowledge areas" that map fairly well onto your fantasy. Students have to be able to check off so many courses in each KA, as well as a minimum number of courses that included significant writing. Ethics has gotten spread "across the curriculum," but each department is required to offer a course dealing with ethics for their majors. There is still a lot of fine tuning going on, but it's better than the old system, with its set of required courses that most students put minimal effort into.

    As for me, I was an English major as an undergrad, but I loved taking the required science courses & took more than I needed: botany, meteorology, geology. These were not gut courses, though it's true they didn't ask for much math. The Botany lab was really cool, using the stereo microscopes to dissect tiny plant parts.