Provost's Corner: General Education: What Is to Be Done?

Scott G. McNall
Carpe Diem! The movie Dead Poet's Society opens with a scene in which an entire classroom of students have their attention raptly focused on their teacher, played by Robin Williams. The students are captivated because Williams loves his subject matter and is completely dedicated to the success of his students. He wants each of them to succeed, to Seize the Day! and to love learning as much as he does. He believes, as the audience is led to believe, that a liberal education has redemptive power. The dark side of the movie is that he cannot save a particular student from self-destruction. Nevertheless, one leaves the theatre believing that education can save the day. Many movies, such as Mr. Holland's Opus and Stand and Deliver, carry the message that dedicated teachers make a crucial difference and that all students can learn if they are encouraged to do so.

The notion that all students have innate potential is a relatively new one, at least in terms of the history of education. The Renaissance gave birth not only to a revival in art, literature, and learning, but to the rise of world commerce. The idea developed that humans were intellectually pliable creatures who could be taught to function in many capacities in a secular world. The education offered was rooted in a liberal arts curriculum made up the quadrivium—consisting of geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy—and of the trivium—consisting of Latin grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

At least three things might be obvious, in a review of the curriculum of a Renaissance scholar. First, it was a curriculum designed to introduce people to what was regarded as essential knowledge, for example, an ability to think critically, to enumerate accurately, to write well and speak well as an engaged citizen needs to do, and to appreciate the arts. The second is that our own general education curriculum is very similar, at least in terms of the goals we articulate for our students. We want students to be intellectually curious, reason well, and express themselves clearly in writing. Third, and it is the point I want to emphasize, is that even though we may have the same goal—provide essential knowledge and skills—we offer such a myriad of choices to complete the general education requirement that the result seems to be a loss of coherence and a possible loss of what is essential. Absent is the notion of a solid core upon which to build one's future education. How did this happen and what might we do about it?

Most comprehensive universities like ours honor the notion that some things would be useful for all students to know. And, the State Legislature has directed that all graduates of a California public university possess certain skills. That is why we have a General Education curriculum and why students must take a total of 48 hours that span the range from a "core" of 9 units to 30 units scattered over four areas (B,C, D, E) to achieve breadth and depth. These 39 hours are topped off with 9 units of an upper-level theme to help students understand that things aren't as disconnected as they may seem. The result is not a tightly structured curriculum but one that literally presents students with tens of thousands of choices.

The range of choice has come about, historically, because of the growth of disciplines and subspecialties. Today, colleges must not only train students to function as intelligent citizens, they must also prepare them to function in a professional setting and/or particular job. Each discipline offers something new, and each believes students should be exposed to the knowledge unique to that discipline. This tension between what we all should know and what we need to know to succeed in a specific profession has moved us away from a basic core set of courses. In place of a core, we have the substitution of distribution requirements that give each college, and often a department, a "share" of the General Education curriculum. Choice is important and it is essential to acquire the knowledge and skills required by a major. The curriculum should evolve, but I would suggest, as have others, that we should not lose sight of the need to provide coherence.

In the fall of 1994, a General Education Task Force was formed to look at the curriculum and to determine how we might provide students with the best educational foundation and how we could provide them with the knowledge and skills they would need to succeed in a world in which they are likely to hold a series of different jobs over the course of their lifetimes. The task force returned with a number of strong recommendations; we have acted on them. The Course Link Program was created to provide students with a learning cohort, to improve retention rates, and to provide faculty teaching linked courses with an opportunity to integrate their course syllabi and course projects. In order to introduce students to the intellectual life of the campus, extended orientation courses were developed, and evolved into 3-unit courses to help students with the transition to college and to provide them with ways to access, evaluate, and use information. Many other things have been accomplished, but I cannot cover them all in this short space. Let me note what I believe remains to be done.

I have forwarded to the Academic Senate a document developed by the General Studies Advisory Committee, acting on my request to develop a comprehensive document which would spell out campus policy on General Education and clarify aspects of how we will implement campus policy. The document also contains a section developed by me that offers a solution to what I regard as the most vexing problems of our General Education curriculum, namely, that there is a lack of intellectual coherence in some of the major areas. The curriculum was not developed so it could be easily related to a student's major; the range of choices within areas (particularly B, C, and D) and across areas presents students with a bewildering variety of choices; and students are not presented with structured choices to help achieve breadth and depth. In order to address these problems, I am proposing that we achieve curricular coherence by offering patterns or "clusters" of courses for students to take. I am not recommending that all students take the same set of courses. I am recommending that students be presented with strong advising options selected from courses already approved as GE courses. I have suggested that there are two primary ways to identify themes or clusters: (1) departments can identify those GE courses outside their disciplines that they believe would be of benefit to their majors; or (2) departments or colleges can address the need to achieve coherence and breadth by identifying themes or clusters within or across major areas (e.g., Areas C, D, and E). Whichever approach is taken, we will have provided guidance to our students to help them understand the logic which undergirds our General Education program and offerings, and we will have linked our majors with our General Education program.

The virtue of pursuing this path is that it builds on what we have. It will help to further distinguish our general education program, and it will achieve the ideal of presenting to all students, as individuals, opportunities that best help them to develop fully their talents.

Scott G. McNall

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