General mis-Education

Want to cut the cost of higher education nearly in half? That’s easy. Eliminate the boondoggle known as General Education. Don’t worry, I know nearly everyone will scoff at the idea and defend it as dearly as they defend tenure. And tenure is certainly more threatened than General Education, because GE is where colleges make their money: big classes often taught by poorly paid adjuncts or graduate students. Cortland’s GE program is basically the same as every SUNY school and many other schools. It takes up 50-60 credits or so depending on AP credit and other factors, at least three semesters.

While some of the particular subject matter and the teaching methods may differ, the goals of GE are basically the same as those of high school: learn to read, write and speak; learn math at the pre-calc, maybe calc level; US and World history; a little philosophy and literature; art or art history; a lab science; and foreign languge.  Add in gym and study hall, and it sounds like my high school curriculum.

And like HS, the underlying values here are nebulous: be "well-rounded;" develop moral/ethical "character;" be a "good citizen." Are any of these things ever really accomplished by listening to lectures, reading textbooks, and taking blue book/multiple choice exams? Does anyone really remember the knowledge from their GE classes? Do remember how to graph functions or find tangents? Do you remember how to balance a chemical equation or figure out the speed a ball rolled down a ramp? What do you recall about the Teapot Dome scandal? If I gave you a line from a Shakespeare play could you tell me which one it was from? Can you scan a poem? How much of that foreign language you took do you remember? Etc, etc.

In short, I think it is highly dubious to claim that any of these grand "citizen-oriented" goals are accomplished through GE. Even if it did, I would be more inclined to see such work as ideological indoctrination: not something I would want to subject myself or my kids to. Furthermore, I don’t believe the specific knowledge of these courses sticks in any systematic way. And what we do remember is not particularly vital, at least it’s not worth the $50G you’re paying for it!

I’d be happy if we eliminated GE, but that’s not my suggestion. Nor in fact do I suggest that we cut the cost of education in half and eliminate 3-4 semesters of the undergrad degree. I’d rather you just got something better for your money. So I suggest this. Most GE programs ar 50-60 credits; most traditional undergraduate degrees are 36 credits.  Flip this ratio. 36 credits of GE and 50-60 credits in your major.

Just to give an example with my own degree, Professional Writing. Most students take a creative writing course or two (in different genres). They get a taste of technical or business writing. They get a course in writing for new media. They get a course in editing. And they get a course or two in rhetoric. Then we have our intro course, an internship, and a senior seminar.  That’s it. In my forumulation, they’d have another six courses or so. That means they could do all they are currently doing AND go really in-depth into preparing for a career as an editor or technical writer or journalist or whatever.

It’s not that I think the faculty in GE courses are bad. As it happens, all the courses I’m teaching this semester are GE. This is not about the faculty. It’s about the curricular structure. We can do better than this.

9 thoughts on “General mis-Education

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  1. I agree 100%. I was frustrated in college, feeling I was repeating my last two years of high school. I suppose it was my own fault, for not trying harder to get AP credits, but still.
    For students, who can’t change the system, but rather have to adapt to it, I recommend getting the GE requirements out of the way at a cheap community college. Classes are likely to be smaller, teachers sometimes care more, and classes are often easier to get into. Then you can spend more time (and money) working on your area of interest.


  2. Alex, you’re right. The current GE curriculum is as dated as the h.s. curriculum it mimics.
    Karin, my issue with your suggestion, though, given the system we’ve currently got to work in, I find my cc students in general not prepared for the rigor of this college’s work.
    So many come in having gotten straight A’s or a few B’s in their cc classes and wail loudly when they discover that their writing is problematic and they are not prepared for the reading load the courses I teach require?


  3. How dated, in fact, is the GE curriculum? If it’s equivalent to or isomorphous to what we call the “Liberal Education,” then the quadrivium/trivium model goes back more than two thousand years. Is gen ed the same thing as a liberal education?


  4. Well, let’s see, Mike. The trivium was grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The quadrivium was arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Our GE is different in content, but the principle is the same. Originally, the idea of “liberal arts” was the knowledge that “free men” (i.e. the upper class) would need to know, as opposed to the “servile arts” of a practical education.
    General Education is what liberal education has evolved into. But it is still this notion of an non-applied/practical education that reflects a classist notion of what an educated person should know.
    Karin and Karen raise an interesting issue. My wife works at a community college, so I have some second-hand idea about what goes on there. I agree that community colleges are likely to have smaller GE classes, and I also believe that you can encounter excellent teachers who are really devoted to GE instruction. Obviously community college is also cheaper, especially if you don’t mind living at home.
    I agree with Karen that our transfer students may not be prepared for the expectations of a four-year college. Not everyone at a community college is moving on to a BA and community college courses often have to focus on some very underprepared students. It seems like the vast majority of students at my wife’s college end up taking pre-college courses (e.g. Basic Writing) in nearly every subject.
    Let me be clear here though. I think the MOST IMPORTANT education that undergrads can get is hypoethically represented in GE. That is, I think they need to learn
    -to write well
    -to speak well
    -to employ mathematical principles
    -to develop literacy, including technological literacy
    And most importantly, they need to learn “how to learn” on their own.
    You could learn these things in GE, but you don’t. Instead I think these things should be integrated into one’s major curriculum.


  5. //So many come in having gotten straight A’s or a few B’s in their cc classes and wail loudly when they discover that their writing is problematic and they are not prepared for the reading load the courses I teach require?
    This can be true. I suppose it depends a great deal on the Community College- some kids coming out of particular high schools have a better start than they would get at a community college.
    I attended a community college for some gen ed courses, and a 4 year state university for others, and found little difference. Both has a mix of easy and hard courses, but both left me feeling unprepared for my 400 level courses. In particular, I didn’t *really* learn to research until my final year of college- at which point I found that I loved it. Part of this had to do with my lack of commitment early on, but part had to do with the general nature of the classes.
    I was always appalled by the general apathy in the lower level classes as well- no one seemed to want to be there (including, occasionally, the teachers). Once I got to the higher level classes, I was with people who actually cared about their education, which was a lot more satisfying.
    The community college in Omaha, Nebraska has a program that is designed to feed directly into the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This seems to work pretty well, and gives the students the feeling that they are working towards something greater than an associates degree.
    Just saw this article posted:


  6. I think you’re on target Karin. The problem with GE is motivation and context. In my view, GE is based on the idea that you can just abstract/conceptualize information and skills and deliver them on a general level. E.g., we imagine that you can just learn “how to write,” rather than recognizing that in order to learn to write well you need to be in a context where the writing matters both to you and your audience.
    Clearly some students manage to thrive under the existing conditions, but everyone might do better if the situation improved. I know I learned far more about writing working as a technical writer while I was an undergrad than I did in any of my English classes.


  7. I guess I’d ask: are the instrumental purposes of education the only purposes of education? I often find with freshmen and sophomores that they really want the instrumental knowledge, the specific stuff that’ll help them for their major and for their careers — but in my own experience, the breadth of knowledge has been important, as well: knowing what a Turing machine is and how it works, using what I learned in a history class on The American Radical Tradition to help frame my Pedagogy review of Wayne Booth’s last book, applying my understanding from John Hayes’s Freshman Psych course to later understand the ways Linda Flower’s use of the term “process” productively complicates Donald Murray’s use of the term. And even those uses of extradisciplinary knowledge are themselves instrumental, in a way that I think knowledge need not be. Does that make sense?


  8. That makes perfect sense to me, Mike. I’m certainly not opposed to students getting an education. Nor do I think “practical knowledge” is something easily defined or predicted. Indeed, I’d say that freshmen and sophmores I encounter rarely know what they want to be so they can hardly define what is practical for them to learn. I just think that students might benefit more from a less restrictive curricular structure.
    My real complaint is with the structure of General Education, which I think is more an institutional crutch than a pedagogically defensible practice. For example, I’m teaching a GE course titled “Introduction to Fiction,” a course I’ve taught several times before. This semester, like every other semester, the course is filled with students fulfilling a requirement. Virtually no one wants to be there.
    If they didn’t have the requirement, what would they take? I don’t know. Maybe they would be just as dissatisfied by the more generic requirement that they need 120 credits of something to graduate. Maybe they would be forced to articulate their own educational goals and interests. And maybe even we would listen to those students and address those goals and interests somehow.
    But this isn’t really about student satisfaction. I figure students will always be ambivalent about schooling and perhaps that’s a good thing. What I’m more interested in is creating environments where students learn in a more engaged and meaningful way.
    I don’t think GE does that. I think it’s a bureaucratic, institutional hangover. Most imporantly I think it legitimates hiring practices. E.g., I can hire a specialist in every literary period, have them teach their specialty twice a year and fill in their schedule with GE courses I require students to take. And it works that way in every Arts and Sciences field. Every department gets its own pork barrel GE requirement.


  9. Again with my observations as an undergrad:
    Looking back, I feel like the stringent GE requirements were a replacement for quality time with an informed academic adviser. I can only speak for my own experience, but I mostly put together my patchwork of classes myself. Students don’t seem to get a good deal of help putting their schedules together by a truly qualified individual- instead, the duty is pushed onto teachers, who obviously have more to do than to study all the intricacies of the school requirements. My adviser had extremely limited office hours (2-3 hours a week) and could almost never answer specific questions.
    Students need direction, especially in the beginning, and some quality one-on-one time with someone who will explain what courses they might want to take and why. This takes much more than a cursory 1 hour evaluation – it will likely mean dozens of hours over a student’s first two years.
    Unfortunately, at a lot of schools, adviser positions are quick to be cut, by administrators that think the teachers can pick up the slack easily. Any revamp of General Education should include a consideration of hiring an army of qualified advisers that will be available to students at a variety of hours (including evening hours).


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