What Role for Sociology?

Discipline sets out to define its contributions to general education and acknowledges it must do a better job of demonstrating them.
July 25, 2006

Sociologists are turning their scholarly gaze inward by examining how their own discipline fits into general education.

The conclusion of a special panel appointed by the American Sociological Association is that the discipline has much to offer general education, particularly as defined by recent efforts to promote improvements in the curriculum. At the same time, the panel found that the discipline hasn't done much at all to measure the classroom impact it has.

The report issued by the panel attempts to focus the discipline on its role and also to get more attention for sociology in broader debates about general education.

Bruce Keith, chair of the panel, said that the association would like to change the way people think about sociology. "It's not just a matter of saying 'we have two or three sociology courses as electives in cluster B of a general education program,' but to begin to look at general education as a set of capacities and skills, and we need to think about the ways that those courses contribute to those areas."

Keith is a professor of sociology and associate dean for academic affairs at the United States Military Academy. While West Point may not be a typical college, its students' experiences with sociology are quite typical in that many are exposed to it, but relatively few are majors. Nationally, most students who take sociology take a single course and at West Point, a required course in military leadership has a significant sociology component. But sociology tends to have 15-20 majors in a class of 1,000.

These sorts of figures -- even if there may be more majors elsewhere -- suggest the challenge for introductory sociology courses, Keith said. "It's much less important to teach students a bunch of concepts about sociology, but rather to provide students with learning capacity, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and quantitative reasoning," he said.

The report compared sociology skills to those stressed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which is seeking to promote a renewal of general education. Sociology courses can contribute to many of the goals AACU has set out for students to achieve through general education: communication, critical thinking, understanding of diversity, moral reasoning, quantitative literacy and social and cultural awareness, among others.

The problem, the panel found, was that at a time that colleges are placing increasing emphasis on assessing what students learn, sociologists have focused primarily on assessing what their majors learn. Because the discipline's role in general education is primarily educating non-majors, professors and departments need to find ways to measure learning in areas like critical thinking, not just assume that the learning takes place, the report said.

Keith said that his West Point perspective gave him a sense of why it truly matters to know whether you are teaching effectively. His students, he said, "will soon be in a global environment and they need to know how to deal with a challenge fairly quickly."


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