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General Education Examined
December 12, 2010 - 7:30pm

My sister recently visited a physician in Manila who turned out to be a former undergraduate student of mine in Iloilo. Recognizing the common surname (Arcala), the doctor gushed about how I had tempted her to switch from a Biology major to a Political Science major, upon taking my General Education class in Social, Economic and Political Theory. To this day she remembers Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau and Marx and the engaging manner in which I embedded their ideas in their historical milieus. In my twenty odd years in the academe, it was the best compliment I have ever received (albeit indirectly). It is also a silent vindication of the premise behind General Education courses in my home university.

First introduced in 1959, GE courses comprise 45 units (or 15 courses covering Communications, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, History, Humanities and Philosophy). Whether majoring in fine arts, computer science or marine biology, all students have to take the GE courses as they form the core learning and competencies that are the university’s trademark. One of my GE teachers referred to it as Renaissance education; another touted its usefulness for engaging cocktail conversation.

I have experienced GE courses both as a student and as an instructor. Guinea pigs that we were in 1987, we had class materials off the printing press (or mimeographing machines for lengthy excerpts of Aristotle’s Politics or Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave). Standardized textbooks (like Acuna’s Introduction to Logic) or compilations (like Foundation for Behavioral Sciences) were tomes read from cover-to-cover. Some GE classes I took were small (with 30 students), while others filled up an entire auditorium. Instructors had varying exposition and theatrical skills to interest a bunch of 16 and 17 year-old students.

To a provincial girl like me, the GE courses were eye openers (socially-speaking) as it is through them that I met students from various backgrounds: the mathematically-challenged Spanish major; the cool, bohemian-looking fine arts major; the English-speaking, Manila elite-school educated cono; and the shy bus driver’s son. I retained very little of the content of the GE courses I took, save perhaps for the knowledge of Impressionist art and volcanoes, which come in handy when I travel abroad.

In recent years, the GE program has been “revitalized;” more courses are offered under the GE umbrella. These courses are expected to be exciting, engaging, more activity-oriented than major/minor courses; they are mental refuges for students otherwise saturated by large doses of information from their disciplines. To take classes like “Fish Makes Sense” or “Understanding Gender” is to escape into a world of wonder. Freedom of choice in turn has driven the premium for theatricality in teaching and grade inflation even more so. For students going for the path of least resistance (read: easy grades), teachers who do not meet the bar are avoided like the plague while popular ones have their class list bursting at the seams.

As a GE teacher, I earlier found myself sorely lacking in pedagogical skills. How does one reduce a lesson on Hobbesian state as a leviathan to a group of biology majors? I must admit my learning curve in teaching GE courses took many years. While political theory is something I can rattle off even half asleep, as a GE course I invested enormous amount of time on how to make it digestible and palatable to students who are not so interested in the ideas. In the free market of GE courses, it all boils down to delivery—the more bells and whistles, the better. Films, literary analysis, group dynamics, journal writing, field trips, creating life stories, play-acting-- I have become more creative in motivating my students to think. It’s a tough job compared to teaching a major course, where I can assume students either sink or swim in the lengthy term papers and oral reports with less help from me. With majors, I have a captive population; with GE, I have to compete with courses that have sexier and timelier content.

The centrality of GE courses in my home university drives home the point that a university education is not about learning skills to enable students to get a job after graduation. It is liberal, holistic, expansive, grounded and inspiring. Like the medical doctor who wistfully remembers the lesson on Karl Marx, and teachers like me and countless others who toil so that they’ll be armies of ex-students like her.

The Visayas, the Philippines

Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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