Strengthening the general ed curriculum requires a change in faculty roles

Many of the weaknesses of today’s universities can be traced back to the widespread failure of faculty to inspire and motivate in the first weeks of the freshman year.

by James Muyskens in University Business

James Muyskens is a professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and former president of CUNY Queens College.

No institution can be better than its faculty. An institution can be better than its president, its football team, its library and its food service—but if the faculty are weak, the institution is weak.

We are in an exciting time for faculty in that their roles are expanding with new opportunities in online education, MOOCs, service learning and the increasing need for lifelong learning.

Indeed we are in the era of “learning by all means.” Our knowledge society requires continual learning and relearning, and the course content must be delivered by all means.

The weakest link in the expanding instructional continuum—where we are least successful—is in general education and freshman introductory courses. The general education curriculum orients students to college and lets students know that they are no longer in high school.

The daunting goal of a general education curriculum is to inspire students and have them experience the joy of learning. Its aim is provide students with the tools to learn how to learn, to follow and generate arguments, to witness the serendipity of discovery and the rigors of confirming a hypothesis.

If successful, it will inculcate respect for the rules of evidence, foster rigorous skepticism, and set students on a lifelong course of seeking truth and uprooting falsehoods. In our rapidly changing times, meeting the goals of general education has become especially urgent and challenging.

Inspire at the start

In the past, students who were not inspired and challenged by general education courses still persevered, believing that a college degree was essential to upward mobility and a good life. Today’s students drop out. Increasingly, they come from the lowest socioeconomic quintiles and don’t have the luxury of lingering in college.

Soon they are saddled with debt, harbor doubts about the worthiness of the pursuit, and succumb to a painful awareness of the odds against their realizing the American dream in contemporary America.

While there are notable and encouraging general education success stories, the overall picture across the U.S. is not good—as borne out by the high number of college dropouts, the low graduation rates and extended time to completion, and the well-documented concerns that our graduates do not know how to think critically or how to write persuasively.

Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to these dismal results. But many of them can be traced back to the widespread failure to inspire and motivate in the first weeks of the freshman year—a key task of general education.

Dramatic reversal

To turn this around, we must radically change our thinking not only about the roles of faculty who teach general education courses, but also who among our instructors should be assigned to teach these classes….

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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).