The Conceit of General Education

Mention General Education to university or college faculty and watch the reaction. Many will wrinkle their noses.  Some will look puzzled. Others, especially those enmeshed in the day to day delivery of GenEd courses, will exhale an exasperated sigh. Still others may say something to the effect of, "not part of my watch."  Each reaction reflects deep fissures in the gen ed dream. The reactions also reflect differing perspectives on ownership and responsibility. Mostly, reactions to 'general education' reflect deep seated, often unrecognized or unexpressed, assumptions about how a university education 'ought to be.'

Faculty reactions to general education typically reflect 'what I think' or 'how gen ed impacts my department.' Infrequently do faculty view gen ed from the student's perspective.  A distinction between 'general education' and disciplinary studies may make sense to faculty.  Students, in contrast, see an entire program of study; "a list of requirements that stand between me and my degree," if you will.Some requirements make sense. Other requirements, requirements that often fall into the 'gen ed' category, elicit puzzlement ("why do I need a course in ...?). As Bok points out in Our Under Achieving Colleges, students tend to not make the connection between program elements; between gen ed courses and other parts of their program of study. This failure reflects shortcomings in program design and delivery. This disconnect is a lost opportunity.

The conceit of general education, as traditionally practiced and conceptualized is the belief that it is a free-standing part of a student's university or college education.  This belief yields general education curriculum that is separate from, independent of, and possibly competing with developing a disciplinary foundation.  This mind-set fosters development of gen-ed fiefdoms that silo general education learning from the balance of a student's experience and education. The partitioning is evident in "layer cake" or "parallel column" curriculum design models. It is a model that risks reifying disciplinary silos rather than optimizing a student's progress toward cultivating general education objectives.

Adopting Nichols' view of liberal education as the collaboration and integration of general education offers an alternate model that disintermediates the conceit. A collaboration model emphasizes integration rather than separation. A collaboration model encourages forming partnerships among faculty from across a campus directed toward a common purpose.   

Our students should, and deserve to, experience and understand their college program as a unified holistic integrated entity in which the interfaces between general education, core curriculum, and major are seamless and mutually reinforcing. Rope provides a useful, although imperfect, metaphor.  Rope is perceived holistically. It's rope.  Yet, rooe is made of individual yarns. Each yearn runs the full length of the rope and, compared to the rope, has little strength.  Each yarn makes a modest contribution to the strength of the rope. A yarn, working in collaboration with many other yarns throughout the length of the rope, yields synergies in that the resulting rope is stronger than would be expected given the individual yarns.  .

This collaborative model requires helping students build a cognitive framework for understanding their program holistically, of the pieces that make of the program of study, and of their interconnections.  Collaboration should be viewed as extending the duration of a student's program; not confined to a particular temporal sliver. Accomplishing this requires careful curriculum design and cultivating in students the cognitive framework necessary for understanding of the whole and the parts from which it is made. If successful, the contributions of each curriculum component to the totality of the program of study should be apparent to every student in the program. If successful, students will perceive the resulting curriculum as a seamless experience. If successful, the resulting educational experience will be of greater value than can be achieved by partitioning general education from the balance of a student's program.

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