Document Type

Article

Publication Date

12-2014

Abstract

Message from President: Christmas, as it was called before it became a generic all-purpose “holiday,” is, at least in the propaganda of western cultures, all about universality: about the day when, so it seemed, the whole world lay at rest, when benefactions went out, if not to all mankind, at least to those on Santa’s good-person list. Christmas, indeed most any winter holiday, depends on the mass distribution of information: on everyone learning (a) that this is the day to keep calm and (b) what it is—what is the cultural and philosophical context—for at least a temporary peace. Everybody’s favorite winter festival thus enjoys a leadership position among those personal and social factors, figures, and influences that advocate for what higher-education professionals call “General Education”: that curriculum or that set of courses or that body of requirements required of everyone who enters the learning’s hallowed halls. That General Education takes at least three forms—either a curriculum or courses or requirements or some combination of these—suggests that it remains somewhat loose and general in its identity. The grandest, richest institutions, which possess the greatest means and resources to implement a mixed program of socialization, acculturation, and education, have, in recent decades, tended to prefer “core” curricula to “general” course distribution requirements. A “core” curriculum, with its strong suggestion of centrality and essentiality, suggests concentration and focus, unlike “general education” or “distribution requirements,” which suggest a hit-or-miss fulfillment of quotas. Closeup examination of both sorts of curricula, however, reveal a curious inversion. Core curricula in tony institutions tend to congregate a smattering of focused courses while general education programs, more common in large state institutions, emphasize the most general, introductory and even “skills” courses. Neither model stands completely on the elusive middle ground of all-purpose instruction that adjectives such as “general” and “core” imply. What is easy enough to recognize is that General Education in any of its current forms either lacks a clear purpose (other than its being required by most accrediting agencies) or cannot, in its current form, fulfil the purposes that we may have recognized. Contemporary American academe prizes enthusiasm and dislikes skepticism. Phrases such as “deep commitment” and “exciting new approaches” garner more applause than doubts about the latest pedagogical fashion. Yet, privately, most honest academic professionals will admit that a large number of students seldom attend General Education courses; that the level of difficulty in these courses has dipped to so low a level as to sink to an elementary allegory of the intended subject matter; and that it is a stretch to imagine that students are learning about foreign cultures by struggling through one semester of German or are grasping the operation of the universe by taking “finite math” or are coming to an appreciation of Condorcet in Social Studies 101. However impressive the skills of the dedicated scholars who teach beginning courses, it is more than a little challenging to observe the formation of an educated citizenry in the typical General Education class. General Education is, indeed, a good deal of what traditional universities have to offer to the general public. The requirement to study broadly and diversely sets legitimate universities apart from online providers and industrial certification schools. It is critical, if universities are to survive in anything resembling their present form, that colleagues begin rethinking General Education. Robust transformations are possible even within the present educational architecture. For example, an institution might choose to end the age of experimentation and create a single first-year curriculum for its students by way not only of educating but of creating an institutional identity. For another suggestion, some campuses might be re-purposed specifically for General Education. Mid-State Regional University of South Dakota, for an imaginary example, might become the designated Dakota State General Education Institute, at which students would spend their first year or two in concentrated General Education study, perhaps at a lower cost than at their intended senior colleges and perhaps in imitation of community colleges but with a four-year upgrade and overlay. The body of material that could be assimilated into a General Education program is greater and more stimulating than ever before. Re-developing General Education could also re-energize a faculty that sorely needs good news, stimulating prospects, and appreciation from the society that it teaches.

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