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The Demise of General Education

Asked recently if general education programs at colleges across the nation are dead, higher education scholar Jay Schalin thought for a moment, then replied: “They’re on life support.”

“It has lost its way,” said Schalin, director of policy analysis for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. “It no longer performs its function.”

Prior to the 1960s, there were certain subjects college students were simply expected to learn about as a natural extension of becoming a productive, well-rounded member of society: logic, western civilization, the scientific method, statistics, writing.

But during the 1960s – the do-your-own-thing age – there was a massive change from rigidly controlled college curriculums to a smorgasbord approach, Schalin explains.

Perhaps nowhere is that degradation of the general education curriculum more evident than at the flagship public university in North Carolina – the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill – where students can cherry pick their general education classes from a list of 4,700 courses that run the gamut from “Love, Sex and Marriage in the Soviet Culture” to “The Gardens, Shrines and Temples of Japan.”

It’s a university at which the course “World Society: Sports and Competition” fulfills the same general education requirement as the class called “Comparative Economic Systems.”

It’s a university that requires only one history course, a mandate that can be met by taking such esoteric classes such as “Courts and Courtly Culture in 16th and 17th Century Spain” and “Shalom Y’all: The Jewish Experience in the American South.”

It’s a university that offers an unstructured, unwieldy general education program that includes narrowly focused, biased or inconsequential courses, such as: Recreation and Leisure in Society; Russian Fairy Tale; Ideology and Aesthetics: Marxism and Literature; Geisha in History, Fiction and Fantasy; Sex and Gender in Society; The Feast in Film, Fiction and Philosophy; and Swords, Tea Bowls and Woodblock Prints: Exploring Japanese Material Culture.

Schalin, co-author of a recent report highlighting these aforementioned major academic shortcomings and many more within UNC-Chapel Hill’s general education requirements, argues the school has “abandoned the concept of a core curriculum.”

And it’s not the only one.

“This is pretty much standard operating procedure for colleges today,” he said. “Brown University doesn’t even have a general education program anymore, and schools are no longer declaring what knowledge is essential for students to have in a general sense.”

Curriculums are controlled by faculty members who aim to advance their own department’s courses and their own narrow fields of research, Schalin said.

There are many reasons why that’s a problem, he adds, not the least of which is that students will likely change jobs numerous times, and a proper general education teaches transferable skills and knowledge, among them: the ability to organize thoughts and write well; the use of logical, scientific or probabilistic forms of reasoning; an awareness of mankind’s past activities and ideas as influences on the present and future; and the power of analysis.

“UNC’s  system of education is influenced by many of the ills of today’s academy: a lack of clear vision, political correctness, and a reluctance to make important judgments,” the report states.

The Pope Center launched its general education review at the behest of former leaders of the university, and developed a list of recommendations on how best to reform it, among them to eradicate thousands of classes that lack importance or are overly narrow in scope, require students take statistics, and mandate students take more history courses focused on Western Civilization and its foundings.

“For example, it is not important to know the wartime musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein, but knowing about the causes of World War II is important,” the report states. “Too often, students can graduate college without being exposed to much of the great writing that defines out idea-rich British-American culture.”

“All American students should be exposed to the thought of Hobbes, Locke, Smith and Burke and read some of the U.S. canon of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.”

The Pope Center is not the first group to take a discerning eye toward a university’s course list and find much room for improvement. For example, the National Association of Scholars in April released a report on liberal arts education in America, using Bowdoin College as a case study. The results were not pretty.

The report revealed Bowdoin’s curriculum lacks a semblance of core requirements to teach students fundamental subjects, while is filled with “incoherent and trivial courses” such as a class entitled “Queer Gardens,” a survey of the horticultural achievements of gay and lesbian gardeners.

“The educational philosophy at Bowdoin is animated by the notion that students receive a coherent education not by following a prescribed path but rather by being liberated to study nearly whatever they desire. This notion, coupled with the marked lack of intellectual diversity and skewed academic focus, creates a student body that is, as the report describes, extremely well versed in racial grievance, anti-capitalism, multiculturalism, and social justice. Yet students know little, if anything, about the plays of Shakespeare, the Civil War, or Aristotle,” The College Fix reported in April.

Schalin, in an interview, said inadequate general education curriculums are par for the course.

“We know of few colleges that go the other way, and they tend to be religious colleges who maintain a general education that reflects their values and are not afraid to say these are the things we want taught,” he said. “But by and large, you will find this smorgasbord approach is the default and status quo throughout academy today.”

Jennifer Kabbany is associate editor of The College Fix.


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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.