Don't Fear General Education

I think most of you know that my recent series of blog posts and podcasts was inspired by a review of a leftover box of recruitment materials a colleague passed along to me. This review revealed the many promises made by colleges and universities, along with great mysteries about important elements for which one must dig deep to learn anything.

One area that seems most elusive is information about a college's "core curriculum" or general education program. In fact, in many circumstances there is absolutely no information. In reviewing the materials for which I am responsible at my college, I am just as guilty of limited mention of general education.

Why is information about the general education program so mysterious? Why don't colleges devote time and energy discussing their core curriculum? I think the answer probably lies in the fact that most prospective students and their parents think about general education courses and core curriculum as required obstacles to get over. In fact, nearly every question that comes up about gen ed begins, "Do I have to take...."

It's odd, given that general education courses at a liberal arts college comprise about a third of a college student's coursework, that colleges have done a pretty poor job of making a case for the fundamental power of the core curriculum. I suspect one reason is because they are afraid to do so, given prospective students' approach to the requirement. In all candor, neglecting to highlight general education programs in promotional materials is probably some form of clumsiness, ivory-toweritis or omission based on fear--combined with an unhealthy historic emphasis on course content as opposed to learning outcomes and skill development. The resulting perception is that a course in religion is focused only on religion, rather than critical thinking.

As I thought more about this elusive information in the admissions materials I reviewed, I found myself wondering why and what prospective students and their parents should ask in order to gather information about the general education program, since we do not provide much on our own.

Why should a prospective student care to ask about the general education program?

In my view, a college's core curriculum or general education program says a great deal about the institution's values and deserves exploration and examination. This is especially important, given that, in most cases, students will spend about one-third of their time taking classes within the core curriculum.

While some general education programs might be justifiably criticized, and it is likely some colleges have a core curriculum that is simply a potpourri of classes representing different academic disciplines or a politically driven arrangement, most programs have been very carefully designed to represent a college's values.

As a prospective student or parent, it would be beneficial to wonder and ask why a college includes a foreign language, religion, statistics, physical education, chemistry, a first-year seminar or capstone project as part of the general education program. There has to be a good reason. I bet most colleges can tell you exactly why (and will wish they had told you in the first place).

Instead of thinking about general education as a set of requirements to get through (a bad habit we all develop by thinking about how to complete high school), prospective students could understand the value of the requirement within a particular college community. Until colleges recognize more fully the need to sell the importance of their students' shared curriculum, which I hope is before long, families should seek out the characteristics of general education programs as a part of the college search.

Perhaps a foreign language expectation is because a college wants to make sure all of its graduates have an appreciation for other cultures and a working knowledge of another language as global citizens?

Maybe a religion class in the general education program is designed to push students outside their comfort zone, consider their values and sharpen their critical thinking skills?

Is a first-year seminar designed to introduce deeper thinking, college reading and writing skills and the art of discussion?

Ask why a course, subject or requirement is important (or not) at a particular college. When you ask why or why not, you'll gain some very valuable insight into the values of a college.

A final reason it is important to understand the "why" is because the core curriculum is the mortar holding together the college experience across academic disciplines. This is too often overlooked in favor of representing students' and graduates' common experience in buildings, quads, gyms and dorms.

In addition to understanding why a college structures its core curriculum in a particular way, you might think about some "what" questions to help you sort this out. Here are some possible questions:

• Who teaches the majority of courses in your general education program?

• What elements of your general education experience are common experiences for all students?

• What are the elements of your general education program that stand out?

• How does your general education program shape your students and graduates?

• How does your general education program relate to my major?

• What ties your general education program together?