The Future of Gen Ed

General education is under threat, but it's worth the fight. Advocates share war and success stories at Inside Higher Ed event.

April 18, 2019
 
From left: Scott Jaschik, co-founder and editor of 'Inside Higher Ed'; Geoffrey Harpham, visiting scholar and senior fellow at Duke University; and Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities

WASHINGTON -- General education is not simply filler for a student’s time in college beyond the major. Done well, gen ed can answer students’ questions about what college is, and why it matters.

Gen ed is also a great American contribution to higher education, affording students the time and space for intellectual exploration, and teaching them to learn to think in different ways.

Yet general education is under threat. Politicians question the value of it, specifically requirements that aren’t explicitly job oriented. Students don’t always get it. And creating and adopting a strong general education program demands much of already time- if not resource-strapped professors and their institutions.

Is gen ed worth the fight? Speakers at Wednesday’s Inside Higher Ed Leadership Series event, The Future of Gen Ed, think so. The sold-out all-day meeting, held at Gallup's headquarters here, featured conversations on why general education matters more than ever, along with data-driven arguments for gen ed. Other speakers offered thoughts on challenges and lessons learned in their own institutions’ gen ed reforms, and whether diversity should be a program requirement.

‘A Common Commitment’

Geoffrey Harpham, visiting scholar and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and former president and director of the National Humanities Center, talked about the namesake figure of his 2018 book on the “golden age” of education, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education. Harpham once met a Mr. Ramirez (that’s a pseudonym) during a campus visit and described how general education transformed the man’s life.

Ramirez went from being a penniless Cuban refugee in 1960s Florida who spoke no English to a professor emeritus of comparative literature. The turning point was when he enrolled in a community college and was forced to take a course on Shakespeare. A professor asked him what he thought about some topic of discussion -- the first time anyone had ever done so. Ramirez was too embarrassed to answer at the time, as he thought he had nothing to say and “no thoughts at all.”

But of course he did have thoughts and things to say. He just needed someone to ask him the right question.

Harpham said he’s under no illusion that we’ll return to that golden age of general education. But he said he does hold out hope that general education survives as a powerful democratizing force and a “common commitment -- variously realized to be sure -- to a common culture that we all share and have a responsibility for.”

While general education is often expressed as a program of courses and values, it’s also an “aspiration,” or spirit, that can be embodied by any professor in any class, he said.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, agreed that general education is a democratizing force that provides a mind- and life-broadening education to the many, not just the elite few. And so political rhetoric that “calls into question the value of higher ed generally, and of liberal education in particular, perpetuates growing racial and economic segregation in our society,” she said.

What can be done? Higher education needs to “demonstrate in a more compelling way that we are teaching 21st-century skills,” Pasquerella said. She offered the example of her own son, Pierce, who railed against having to take courses in small group communication and intercultural competence while he was studying to be a filmmaker.

Then Pierce’s first job out of college happened to be on the Jerry Springer show, where he helped manage guests for hours on end in the green room. Finally all that education made sense to him.

Still, Pasquerella said, if a student who has two academics for parents doesn’t understand at the time what good his education is doing him, “What hope do other students have of sticking with a structure they think is totally useless?”

Case Studies in Gen Ed Reform

Indeed, one measure of a gen ed program’s value is student buy-in. In one of a number of general education case studies presented, Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict, said that her faculty members are seeking to build a more cohesive and student-centered program with the college’s new Integrations Curriculum. The program, set to begin in fall 2020, was guided by three design principles: making explicit connections between classes via themed courses, reflection and more; high-impact practices including writing-intensive courses, common intellectual experiences and a student portfolio; and a strong liberal arts and sciences education.

“Our faculty was seeking to answer two key questions: Why does general education matter to liberally educated students, and what content and pedagogy best support our goals for the liberal arts” on campus? Hinton said. While the process was faculty driven, Hinton added, students were engaged in conversations about what courses would help them lead and make positive change in the world from the start.

Linda A. Bell, provost and dean of the faculty at Barnard College, helped oversee a general education reform around 2016 that was, in part, prompted by students' requests for a change. There wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the 16-year-old curriculum centered on nine ways of knowing, she said. But “fundamentally working is not good enough.”

Barnard’s reform, also driven by the faculty, resulted in a new Foundations curriculum promoting six modes of thinking, including thinking technologically and digitally. Courses in dance, architecture and fine arts, among other disciplines, satisfy it. Barnard has devoted more resources to it based on student demand. It's also committed to reviewing the Foundations every five years.

Ursinus College also hopes to transform the residential college experience with its new general education program based on four enduring questions, Mark B. Schneider, provost and dean, said in a separate TED talk-style presentation.

While liberal arts colleges were well represented at the event, administrators, faculty members and even students from across institution types shared insights, too. Pam Y. Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, reminded those present that half of all college students are at institutions like hers. So if general education is to survive, she said, community colleges must be involved in conversations about it. And those conversations must be inclusive, she added, saying that her culinary students and faculty members are intellectuals, too, for example.

Melody Bowdon, interim vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of Central Florida, is helping lead an overhaul of the general education program there. It’s complicated by the institution’s massive enrollment (some 68,000 students, mostly undergraduates), state restrictions on the curriculum and the fact that over half of undergraduates transfer from community colleges.

Still, she said, the process has gone relatively smoothly and enjoyed high levels of faculty enthusiasm. A valuable part of the process is hearing faculty members make explicit connections between program requirements and the content they’re already teaching -- making what's often invisible in general education visible. Bowdon also personally invites faculty members to participate in workshops on the pedagogical innovations that make gen ed courses that much more successful.

Donald J. Laackman, president of preprofessional Champlain College, talked about the merits of integrating general education across disciplines, for all four years, via the Core. And Melinda Zook, professor of history at Purdue University, discussed the runaway success of a Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts certificate program for students studying outside the liberal arts. The 15-credit-hour certificate is based on engagement with transformative texts and advanced humanities study.

Diversity Matters

An increasing number of institutions are requiring students to study diversity within their curricula. Should they?

Lucía Martínez Valdivia, assistant professor of English and humanities at Reed College, spoke with candor about her lingering doubts as to how her institution responded to a long-term student protest over a shared introductory humanities courses. The course, Hum 110, previously began with The Epic of Gilgamesh and covered ancient texts from Rome to Egypt. But following student complaints that the curriculum was "too white," there are now new modules. One of them attempts to cover 500 years of Mexican cultural history in a few weeks.

At least one student involved in the protest has since expressed regret, acknowledging that she “didn’t know what she didn’t know” at the time, Valdivia said. Valdivia’s response was that that’s typical for an 18-year-old. But the fact that students don’t know what they don’t know is something colleges might seriously weigh in responding to these kinds of student demands, she said.

Valdivia also said her last few weeks of teaching have confirmed that the closer in time and space diversity-based content is to students’ own experiences, the harder it is for them to be objective and ready to take information in.

Students' "learning identity is something we can no longer take for granted at liberal arts colleges,” she said. “Things have changed so much in the last 10 years.”

Laura Rosanne Adderley, associate professor of history at Tulane University, said students were involved in but did not drive a decision to add two diversity-related requirements to their curriculum. Students are now requred to take one course that is more than 50 percent related to race and inclusion in the U.S.., and one course on global perspectives. The latter requirement was inspired by the idea that when one studies life, language or culture outside one’s own domain, one’s racial empathy grows.

Adderley said it’s too soon to call these new requirements a success. But one hope is that they’ll not only revitalize enrollments in history and other courses dealing with diversity, but possibly draw students deeper into these programs, through exposure.

But to Valdivia’s point, students only benefit when they are in a growth mind-set and believe they have something to learn, Adderley said.

“These courses are not to fix people who don’t already know,” Adderley said. “It’s not what they’re there for.”

Measuring Gen Ed's Value

Getting gen ed right is clearly tricky. But beyond anecdotes and personal opinion, the data on long-term outcomes indicate that students benefit when colleges do get it right. Richard A. Detweiler, founder and managing director of HigherEdImpact, discussed his findings from 1,000 interviews with both liberal arts and other kinds of college graduates, 10 to 40 years postgraduation. He found that gradates who reported key experiences associated with liberal arts colleges (which tend to value general education) had greater odds of measures of life success associated with these colleges’ goals.

Graduates who reported discussing philosophical or ethical issues in many classes, and who took classes in the humanities, were 25 to 60 percent more likely than other graduates to have characteristics of altruists, for example (meaning they volunteered and gave to nonprofit groups, etc.). And those who reported that professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their views, and whose course work emphasized questions on which there is not necessarily a correct answer, were 25 to 40 percent more likely to report that they felt personally fulfilled.

As for money, Detweiler has found there is a strong relationship between a having a broad undergraduate education and financial success. Those who take more than half of their course work in subjects unrelated to their majors -- an extensive general education -- are 31 to 72 percent more likely than others to have higher-level positions and to be earning more than $100,000.

A number of commenters throughout the day bemoaned the difficulty in assessing general education at the institutional level. But Carol Geary Schneider, fellow at the Lumina Foundation and president emerita of the AAC&U, bristled at that idea, saying that there's no need to recreate the wheel on assessment. Groups such as AAC&U have long-standing essential learning outcomes for a liberal education, she said.

"You don't have to measure every little course," she said. "We're not doing enough to celebrate the tools that already exist."

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