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General education programs are a perennial source of consternation for faculty, administrators and students alike. The challenges, from one institution to another and from one decade to another, read like a broken record. For students, general education classes seem irrelevant to their majors or career goals, which make them pointless, something merely to “get out of the way.” Faculty struggle to explain how these courses serve their purported purpose, to provide a general foundation for more advanced learning. Finally, any effort to redesign general education demands institutionwide buy-in on what courses fulfill the requirement, which is difficult to obtain and even harder to sustain over time. Perhaps no issue in higher education generates more calls for reform (and then reform again) than how to structure gen ed requirements.

Recently, these long-standing issues have been exacerbated by larger social and institutional trends. Students, parents and policy makers increasingly demand that we demonstrate the “value proposition” of a college education in economic and career-focused terms, especially in light of the rapidly rising cost of college. The charge that liberal education, and the humanities in particular, are irrelevant to contemporary society lands especially hard on those general education courses that ostensibly form the core of that education. Finding a way forward is daunting, but before we despair of finding a solution, we should reconsider the purposes of general education and one way they might be fulfilled.

The question is how to revitalize general education in a way that a) serves as a foundation for advanced academic work, b) prepares students for their careers and c) reinforces and fulfills key goals of a liberal education in ways that will be meaningful to all stakeholders. Each of these goals is legitimate; indeed, one of the problems of designing meaningful gen ed requirements is that it is difficult to serve such disparate goals simultaneously. Beneath the endless debates about what “works” is the often-unacknowledged fact that we lack a common philosophy of what general education is for. As a result, we design a program that meets some goals, but not others and then down the road other faculty (or new institutional leaders) with a different set of goals decide that the program needs to be redesigned. And so the merry-go-round continues.

One solution may be hiding in plain sight. We can place critical thinking at the heart of general education. Doing so, I contend, would enable us to achieve all three of the goals presented above.

Critical thinking has been defined in various ways, but my work suggests that faculty can broadly agree at least on this: we want our students to cultivate a skeptical habit of mind, to interrogate the information they encounter (increasingly, on the internet and through social media) and to be open to points of view that challenge their perspectives. Indeed, I think most of us assume that these are the skills and attitudes that students will learn in all our courses (I know I did). And yet, we rarely identify exactly how to think critically in this way or teach it explicitly (I know I didn’t). What would this entail?

We might begin by identifying the four core elements of critical analysis:

  • exploring context,
  • considering and comparing alternatives,
  • weighing evidence and
  • investigating implications (or new applications) of any information or conclusion.

Of course, how we do these things varies significantly from one discipline to another. But, at a minimum, virtually every assignment we give our students requires that they put information in some context (historical, conceptual), compare alternatives (different interpretations or theories), weigh evidence (its trustworthiness, relevance) and/or investigate implications (for society, or for further research). Certainly, there are other kinds of intellectual work and other competencies (ethical, practical or emotional) that we might also require of our students. But these critical thinking skills are arguably foundational to our training as scholars and so, too, to the curricula we design for our students.

Understood in this way, critical thinking skills are surely the most relevant and enduring benefit that a general education could offer students. Insofar as these skills form the core of work they will do throughout their college careers, introducing them early—ideally, at the beginning of their first year—would lay the foundation they need to succeed. Courses that instill these skills would be viewed as the building blocks for subsequent coursework, no longer just pointless requirements.

Moreover, as numerous surveys have demonstrated, employers regard critical thinking skills as being among the most important qualifications for new hires. Contrary to a common assumption, a student’s major generally matters less to prospective employers than the ability to think analytically, solve problems and express themselves clearly and persuasively. We need to inform students that even if they assume the purpose of college is solely to launch their careers—and we certainly want them to think more broadly than that—this is best accomplished by becoming adept at critical thinking. If they do that, they will be well positioned for any career, including for jobs that don’t yet exist.

Finally, policy makers, funders and others invested in the work of higher education may be persuaded that college is worth the requisite expense and time if students emerge with the critical thinking skills to become discriminating consumers of information. In a society increasingly awash in disinformation and conspiratorial thinking, this is a benefit that a college education is uniquely positioned to offer—provided that we make critical thinking a central and explicit component of our general education curriculum. Moreover, doing so is wholly aligned with our stated mission. Virtually every undergraduate program in the country includes “producing critical thinkers” or some variation thereof in its mission statement. However, data show that to a significant degree we are falling short in fulfilling that mission. Through our gen ed programs we have an opportunity to make good on that commitment.

Educational reform is difficult for many reasons, of course, but chief among them is that we instinctively focus on discrete courses or clusters of courses. Perhaps it is time to think outside the curricular box. Gen ed reform, to be effective, will require more than creating new courses that need to be staffed or new requirements that need to be approved by the faculty senate. It will require pedagogical, cultural and programmatic changes, as well as an imaginative approach to reorienting students to the value of general education.

We might begin at the very outset of our students’ orientation to college, during new student week. In addition to all the ways we seek to ensure a successful transition to college, we might devote one day (even part of a day) to introducing students to the four essential elements of critical thinking outlined above. Rather than a common reading program, in which students read a book that is rarely (if ever) discussed again in their courses, a brief introduction to the basics of critical thinking would orient them to the work we will expect them to do every term. Faculty could refer to these skills as they practice them in their respective disciplines, knowing that students have a common vocabulary to build on.

Moreover, without designing a whole new set of courses, faculty could surface and reinforce these skills throughout their teaching:

  • In assignment prompts, e.g.: “This assignment will require you to practice placing this reading in its historical context and evaluating alternative interpretations.”
  • In lectures, e.g.: “Today I’ll be comparing two different theories and their respective implications.”
  • In classroom discussions, e.g.: “That’s a great question because you placed this author’s views in the context of something we discussed two weeks ago.”
  • In sharing their own research, e.g.: “In my research, I had to account for the evidence that initially appeared to undermine my conclusion.”
  • In course evaluations, e.g.: “Indicate the extent to which you feel this course strengthened the four critical thinking skills listed on the syllabus.”

The more that faculty reinforce the value of critical thinking both in their own work and in the work they expect of students, the more students will recognize the acquisition of these skills as the heart of their education. We will focus less on which courses fulfill a “gen ed requirement” and more on how we teach and reinforce (repeatedly) specific critical thinking skills, which we identify as essential to their general education and as preparation for careers (and life in general) after graduation.

Other stakeholders have a role to play in reinforcing this message, as well. We can readily imagine a set of programs that support our gen ed goals. Alumni could talk with current students about how they learned to think more analytically and how this has helped them in their lives. Civic leaders could convey the importance of thinking critically for responsible citizenship in a democratic society. Business leaders could talk with students about how demonstrating these skills gives them an edge in the job market.

Offering a general orientation to critical thinking early in a student’s career, of course, doesn’t preclude requiring courses from diverse areas of the curriculum. But now such courses, in addition to exposing students to diverse areas of human knowledge (STEM, social sciences, arts and humanities), could foreground the various ways in which scholars in those disciplines think critically—the distinctive sorts of questions they ask, the types of evidence they examine to answer those questions and the methods they use to do so. Such courses would contribute more substantially to our students’ education because the faculty teaching them would be able to presume a basic understanding of critical thinking that students had already been exposed to.

General education, no matter how it is structured, needs to provide a foundation for advanced learning in college, to prepare students for their careers and to further the goals of liberal education. Placing critical thinking at the heart of general education enables us to do all these things simultaneously, while also reinforcing the value of higher education to its many skeptics. We can revitalize general education without restructuring our institutions or creating requirements that are cumbersome to administer. But doing so will require that we reimagine gen ed as a set of skills and competencies, introduced early and reinforced throughout the curriculum, and then make the case to our students that delivering this education is good for them and for society.

Louis E. Newman is the former dean of academic advising and associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University, as well as the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies, emeritus, at Carleton College. His most recent book is Thinking Critically in College: The Essential Handbook for Student Success (Radius Book Group, 2023).

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