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.