Degrees of Ignorance: The Gutting of Gen Ed, by Michael W. Clune

There is no reason to unduly limit our students’ horizons. Following your interests does not doom you to a life of poverty and struggle.

by Michael W. Clune in the Chronicle Review

I was nearly 30 the first time I met an example of the new breed — a University of Michigan graduate who knew nothing beyond what was necessary to pursue his trade. It was my first job out of graduate school, and Michigan had one of the highest-ranked engineering schools in the country.

Let’s call him Todd. He’d graduated a few years before. I met him at a party. He had a good job at a local engineering firm and drove a nice car. Talk turned to intellectual matters, and I soon learned that he was a creationist. He didn’t seem to be aware of arguments for the other side.

He was surprised to learn that Russia had fought in World War II. He’d done well in AP high-school English, which had gotten him out of having to take literature classes, and he hadn’t read a book since graduating from college. “Most manuals nowadays are online,” he said.

Learning that I was an English professor, he asked me if I’d be willing to help him with a self-assessment document he had to write for his job. I was curious, and when a few days later his draft landed in my inbox, I discovered that his writing suffered from basic flaws.

I think even those most committed to putting vocational training at the center of higher education will agree that Michigan had failed Todd. The key Todd-prevention mechanism, which had somehow malfunctioned in this case, is known as general education. This set of courses required for all majors is designed to transmit the rudiments of critical thinking, writing, science, history, and cultural literacy to the students whom our universities are training — as Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker memorably put it — to meet our “work-force needs.”

To begin to illustrate the threats that gen ed now faces, let me introduce another figure. We’ll call him Donald…

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Michael W. Clune is a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. His most recent book is Gamelife (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).