Tag Archives: general ed

What Should We Learn in College? (Part II)

by Wade Maki

In my last post I discussed comments made by our Governor on what sorts of things we should, and shouldn’t, be learning in college. This is a conversation going on across higher education. Of course we should learn everything in college, but this goal is not practical as our time and funds are limited. We are left then to prioritize what things to require of our students, what things will be electives, and what things not to offer at all.

One area we do this prioritization in is “general education” (GE), which is the largest issue in determining what we learn in college. Some institutions have a very broad model for GE that covers classic literature, history, philosophy, and the “things an educated person should know.” Exactly what appears on this list will vary by institution with some being more focused on the arts, some on the humanities, and others on social sciences. The point being that the institution decides a very small core for GE.

The drawback to a conscribed model for GE is that it doesn’t allow for as much student choice. The desire for more choice led to another very common GE system often referred to as “the cafeteria model” whereby many courses are offered as satisfying GE requirements and each student picks preferences for a category. This system is good for student choice of what to learn, but it isn’t good if you want a connected “core” of courses.

In recent years there has been a move to have a “common core” in which all universities within a state would have the same GE requirements. This makes transfers easier since all schools have the same core. However, it also tends to limit the amount of choice by reducing the options to only those courses offered at every school. In addition, it eliminates the local character of an institution’s GE (by making them all the same), which also reduces improvements from having competing systems (when everyone does it their own way, good ideas tend to be replicated). If we don’t try different GE systems on campuses then innovation slows.

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No matter which direction we move GE, we still have to address the central question of “what should we learn?” For example, should students learn a foreign language? Of course they should in an ideal world, but consider that foreign language requirements are two years.  We must compare the opportunity costs of that four course requirement (what else could we have learned from four other courses in say economics, psychology, science, or communications?). This is just one example of how complicated GE decisions can be. Every course we require is a limitation on choice and makes it less likely that other (non-required) subjects will be learned.

As many states look at a “common core” model there is an additional consideration which is often overlooked.  Suppose we move to a common core of general education in which most students learn the same sorts of things.  Now imagine your business or work environment where most of your coworkers learned the same types of things but other areas of knowledge were not learned by any of them. Is this preferable to an organization where its already employed educated members learned very little in common but have more diverse educational backgrounds? I suspect an organization with more diverse education employees will be more adaptable than one where there are a few things everyone knows and a lot of things no one knows.

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This is my worry about the way we are looking to answer the question of what we should learn in college. In the search for an efficient, easy to transfer, common core we may end up:

  1. Having graduates with more similar educations and the same gaps in their educations.
  2. Losing the unique educational cultures of our institutions.
  3. Missing out on the long term advantage of experimentation across our institutions by imposing one model for everyone.

Not having a common core doesn’t solve the all of the problems, but promoting experiments through diverse and unique educational requirements is worth keeping. There is another problem with GE that I can’t resolve, which is how most of us in college answer the question this way: “Everyone should learn what I did or what I’m teaching.” But that is a problem to be addressed in another posting. So, what should we learn in college?