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Gen ed, as currently designed and implemented, faces an existential threat from early-college/dual-degree programs.

I, for one, won’t bemoan its passing. In Texas, after all, our entering students have already taken U.S. history in fifth, eighth and 11th grades. They’ve also taken classes that, at least in theory, have introduced them to literature and mathematics and, in growing numbers, the social sciences.

I can’t tell you the number of times students have complained that my institution’s core curriculum simply replicates what they’ve already studied in 10th, 11th and 12th grades.  No wonder many fulfill their lower-division requirements in the cheapest, fastest and least demanding way possible: through asynchronous online classes with ridiculously low reading and writing requirements and extraordinarily high grade distributions.

We need to do something different.

The imminent demise of the existing gen ed curriculum creates an opportunity for colleges and universities to radically rethink what a liberal arts education ought to look like in the 21st century.

As a thought experiment, I asked myself what the humanities and social science portion of the general education curriculum might look like if we were to embrace more contemporary perspectives and concerns. Some steps are obvious. We would:

  • Broaden the canon, incorporate a more diverse array of voices and ensure that the courses reflect global and comparative perspectives, not just Western viewpoints.
  • Promote courses that combine disciplines and encourage a holistic view of various subjects.
  • Address the major global and domestic issues of our time from multidisciplinary points of view.

But if we were truly serious, we’d go further. We would:

  • Challenge “victors’” and Whiggish narratives that treat progress as a fairly unambiguous good and pay close attention to the histories of colonization, resistance and resilience in various global contexts.
  • Recognize the politics of language and the impact of linguistic colonization.
  • Take Indigenous and other alternate perspectives, histories and knowledge seriously.
  • Address issues of power and their embodiment in law, discourse, institutions, public policy and socialization and dominant ways of thinking as well as focus on modes of resistance and the ways that power is subject to renegotiation.

Here are some of the courses that I’d consider incorporating into the gen ed curriculum.

Axes of Identity. Such a course would delve into the multifaceted nature of personal and social identity, examining how various identity components intersect, overlap and influence individual and collective experiences. It would examine identifies rooted in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, disability, religion, age, disability and nationality and how these identities have evolved over time and have been conceptualized in specific historical and cultural contexts. This course would also encompass colonial and postcolonial identities, diasporic identities, professional identities and national identities and investigate how various identities are interwoven and interconnected and how institutions and law uphold and reinforce privilege and inequalities.

Decolonizing the Curriculum. The purpose of this course is to envision a curriculum that is diverse, inclusive, global and comparative. It would challenge and reconfigure dominant Eurocentric narratives and paradigms, conflict stereotypes and cultural biases, and elevate marginalized voices and perspectives. It might begin by examining how colonial ideologies influenced the development of various academic disciplines. It might then examine the canonical texts, epistemologies and biases in the existing curriculum; explore what is included and excluded and why; reframe narratives rooted in colonial and Eurocentric perspectives; and introduce students to Indigenous and other alternative discourses and knowledge, religious and philosophical systems.

The Arts Through a Decolonized Lens. This class would re-examine traditional narratives of the arts; analyze works from previously marginalized, suppressed or excluded artistic traditions; explore the impact of colonial legacies upon artistic production, representation and appreciation; examine the appropriation and looting of art during colonization; scrutinize the role of museums, galleries and art institutions in upholding colonial legacies; and look closely at traditional and contemporary Indigenous art forms; and examine cultural appropriation and commodification through a critical lens.

The Life Course in Transition. Such a class would examine human development across the life span including physical, emotional, cognitive and social changes and the interplay of biology, family, society and culture. In addition to exploring the biological foundations of development, it would look at how different cultures understand and experience the stages of life, rites of passage and aging and explore cultural perspectives on death and the afterlife.

The Human Condition. This course would introduce students to profound issues intrinsic to human existence. It would investigate what it means to be human, the challenges and triumphs inherent in the human experience and how various forces shape our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Among the issues it might explore include human nature and whether it is inherently good or evil; religious and secular approaches to the quest for meaning and happiness; responses to the challenges of adversity, suffering and mortality; the tensions between individuality, tradition and conformity; the limits of human freedom and agency; and the human need for love, friendship and belonging.

The Contested Concept of Rights. This class would examine the principles, laws, institutions and movements centered around the rights and freedoms to which every individual is entitled, regardless of nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or any other status. Topics might include the historical and philosophic foundations of the concept of rights; civil, political, economic, religious and cultural rights; the monitoring and enforcement of rights; and the rights of specific groups of people: women, children, Indigenous peoples, refugees and migrants, persons with disabilities, and students and academics.

Moral Dilemmas and Ethical Decision-Making. This course’s goal is to equip students with the tools and frameworks to approach moral dilemmas thoughtfully and to make ethical decisions in their personal and professional lives. It would focus on complex situations where moral considerations clash and where the “right” choice is not immediately clear. It would introduce students to various ethical theories and frameworks for ethical decision-making; bias, prejudice and ethical blindness; professional codes of conduct; bioethics, environmental ethics and technology and ethics (including issues involving privacy, machine learning and cyberbullying); inequalities and justice; ethical dilemmas in wartime; ethical trade and consumerism; cultural relativism; and accountability for past wrongs.

Justice, Rights and Accountability. Such a class would ask how various societies and religious and cultural traditions understand and define justice; how they’ve conceived of rights, civil, collective, economic, political and social; and how they seek to ensure individual, institutional and governmental accountability. Topics that might be covered include: the development of ideas about justice and rights; positive and negative rights; the difference between justice, fairness and equity; the rights enumerated in law, constitutions and other documents and traditions; rights in times of crisis, including the balance between individual rights and collective security; the rights of Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities (including rights related to race, gender, sexual orientation and disability), the right to a healthy environment, the right to privacy and digital rights. It might also examine the mechanisms to ensure justice and accountability and redress past wrongs and the value of contemporary ideas about restorative and transformative justice.

The Problem of Evil. A course on the problem of evil might explore the various forms that evil can take, including moral evil and natural evil (such as diseases and natural disasters); literary and artistic representations of evil as both repulsive and fascinating; theological, philosophical and anthropological approaches to the problem of evil, including how various cultures perceive and categorize evil and the rituals, myths and societal structures used to combat or understand evil; the psychology of evil; societal, structural and systemic evils like racism and economic injustices; modern manifestations of evil, such as terrorism, genocide and weapons of mass destruction; and responses to evil, including ideas about forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and healing.

Labor Systems. A course on labor systems would introduce students to the various ways that societies have organized their economies and extracted labor. It should also examine the nature of workers’ lives and their responses to labor practices that they regarded as exploitative or excessive. Topics would include slavery, serfdom, corvée, indentured labor, domestic servitude, labor in colonial societies, the apprenticeship system, contract labor (including what is pejoratively called “coolie labor”), factory labor, forced labor in concentration campus and gulags, migratory labor, the informal economy, domestic labor, gender and labor, precarity and labor, labor ethics and global supply chains. and technology, automation and the future of labor.

Global Issues. Courses addressing major contemporary issues are essential if students are to be equipped to navigate and understand the complexities of the modern world. No single course can tackle these topics, but we might consider placing such courses under a common umbrella. Here are some potential courses that might address these big picture subjects:

  • Climate Change and Environmental Ethics: Such a course might explore the scientific, social, political and ethical dimensions of climate change, with a focus on sustainability and conservation strategies.
  • Global Health Challenges: This class might discuss contemporary health issues like pandemics, health equity and the challenges and strategies of global health-care delivery.
  • Migration, Refugees and Border Politics: Such a course might examine the causes, challenges and complexities of global migration patterns, refugee crises and the politics of borders and immigration policies.
  • Artificial Intelligence, Digital Technologies, Ethics and Society: This class might examine the implications of artificial intelligence and machine learning on creativity, employment, decision-making, privacy and the ethical considerations surrounding these new technologies. It might also address issues of surveillance, data collection and the balancing act between security and personal privacy.
  • Social Media, Politics and Democracy: Such a course might examine the role of social media platforms in shaping political discourse, influencing elections and the challenges these technologies pose to democratic processes. the phenomenon of misinformation and disinformation.
  • Gender, Sexuality and Society: This class might address contemporary debates and issues related to LGBTQ+ rights, gender roles and the intersection of gender with race, class and other identities.
  • Mental Health Issues in Contemporary Society: This class might address the following topics: definitions of mental health and illness; historical perspectives on mental health; the stigma surrounding mental health issues; genetic, neuro-biological and environmental factors in mental health; neurodiversity; anxiety disorders, behavioral disorders, communication disorders, eating disorders, learning disorders, mood disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, substance abuse and addictive disorders and trauma and stressor-related disorders; accommodations, interventions and treatment modalities and mental health supports.
  • Sustainability: Topics might include: the science of climate change and mitigation and adaptation strategies, the green energy transition, waste management and reduction, threats to biodiversity, aquatic sustainability (involving such issues as overfishing, pollution and coral reef degradation), environmental racism, intergenerational justice and international sustainable development agreements.
  • War and Armed Conflict: Such a course would explore the causes, dynamics, consequences and ethical considerations of war, as well as the motivations and implications of international interventions. Topics might include: the types of war (including civil wars and insurgencies, terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, proxy wars, limited wars and total war); the causes of war; theories of international conflict; the ethics of warfare; counter-terrorism; nuclear weapons, deterrence theory and nuclear proliferation; the efficacy of counter-terrorism, economic sanctions and arms control; the future of warfare; and diplomatic interventions, conflict resolution, peacekeeping and postconflict resolution.

I’m sure you can think of other classes that might speak to our time. But I think it is essential that such classes be interdisciplinary rather than discipline-specific, global and comparative rather than exclusively national and analytic, interpretive and critical rather than descriptive or explanatory.

Colleges and universities need to offer the kinds of courses that high schools can’t. These are classes that tackle highly charged, hot-button topics and that offer contentious, provocative perspectives on the course material. These are also classes that treat their subject matter at the high level of sophistication that only broadly trained, knowledgeable experts can provide.

Anything less is, in my view, a waste of time and a misuse of faculty resources. A college education should build on what students already learned in high school, but it shouldn’t recapitulate their secondary school education.

The religious sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Don’t expect legislators or accreditors to protect campuses from the threats that loom ahead, including the growing pressure to offer gen ed classes in an asynchronous format, reduce the number of credits required for graduation or count high school classes toward a degree. Only we, collectively, can defend our institutions.

In the most forceful terms, colleges need to speak out and reaffirm their distinctive educational role: to prompt students to question received wisdom, challenge conventions and push the boundaries of what is imaginable. No high school can do that. Only colleges can, but only if we treat that as our essential mission.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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