Not all that long ago, college followed a predictable pattern: two years of general education requirements followed by two years of courses in the chosen major. No longer. As this review of course requirements shows, even some of the liberal arts colleges have minimized requirements outside the major.
Of all the potential causes for the disappearance of general ed, two seem lost likely to me (though this is pure conjecture). One is the commodification of higher education, in which climbing walls, dorm-suites with pools, and emphasis on career-focused courses are necessary to compete for students. The is that many faculty members are unaware that a shared body of knowledge is necessary for active citizenship (or effective communication or even on-the-job critical thinking).
Regardless, creating general education requirements is so rare these days that it’s newsworthy. Students seem oblivious to the notion that education could have more than one purpose. As a freshman at Boston University said, “I feel like, if you know you want to be an engineer, you shouldn’t have to spend your time doing things that aren’t really going to apply to you.”
Engineering may make for a good career, but there’s far more to a good life (image courtesy of Shutterstock).
Of course, this isn’t the students’ fault. The real problem is with the adults who have abdicated their duty to define and protect the very notion of an education. Marc Tucker tackled this recently, asking “What Does It Mean to Be an Educated Person Today?”
One of the most influential—and, I think it is fair to say, thoughtful—statements on what it might mean to be an educated person … was the Harvard University report on General Education in a Free Society, released in 1945. It addressed both the schools and higher education, offering the view that social and moral development is no less important than academic learning. It argued that everyone is capable of serious intellectual accomplishment at some level and that the accumulation of expert knowledge in one arena is positively dangerous if it is not grounded in a broad, deep and humane understanding of the human condition and a well-grounded moral sensibility, that a democracy likes ours cannot survive if serious learning is monopolized only by our elites. For all these reasons, it said, the modern university had an obligation to require all students to take at least a third of their course selections from courses specially designed by teams of top faculty not to advance students in their march toward specialization but rather to involve them in the study of complex issues, systems, big ideas from the full realm of human experience … to help them lead the good life as the Greeks would have understood that phrase—to be decent, capable, concerned, involved contributors and thoughtful citizens. They proposed, in other words, what amounted to a common curriculum, with some choice, that would be designed to enable all students to achieve goals that the Harvard task force had thought long and hard about.
Just a few years ago, another Harvard president called a subsequent Harvard task force together to update General Education in a Free Society. It failed to come to a consensus on a common, coherent undergraduate curriculum. Little wonder. In the intervening years, the university had become a vast holding company of faculty entrepreneurs and specialists and the student body had come to build and hone the specialist skills and faculty and student connections that would give them an edge in a highly competitive job market.
With every passing year, our college and university programs are more vocational in nature…. We need to turn off the autopilot. We need to examine the technological, political, social and moral challenges we face and ask ourselves how and for what purpose we should be educating—not training—our young adults. If it were ever the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is the case now.
While there are still some institutions teaching the liberal arts, I don’t see most colleges escaping from a narrow concept of career preparation. But since most students don’t complete college, perhaps our focus should be on K–12. With Core Knowledge and other rigorous curricula, shouldn’t our goal be for high school graduates to be well educated, ready to lead good lives?