General Education: Our Response to Critics | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's note: The John William Pope Center for Education Policy provides a treasure trove of information suggesting the better path forward in regards to North Carolina's number one issue - public education. Public education, at all levels, requires a significant amount of funding from our state government, and all one hundred North Carolina counties, so it is essential that leaders effecting education policy get it right, and know that concerned entities, like the John William Pope Center, will be minding their progress to do so. We welcome the John William Pope Center for Education Policy to our growing readership, and expect our readers to learn all they can to do their part in this wise endeavor to better educate our People.

The authors of this post are Jenna Ashley Robinson and Jay Schalin.

    We respond to criticisms of the report on UNC-Chapel Hill's

    The Pope Center recently published a report on UNC-Chapel Hill's general education program  -  the "core curriculum" of non-major requirements that all students must complete in order to graduate. In our report, we analyzed the current system and then presented two alternative programs for general education. One is a hypothetical "optimal" program that permitted us to illustrate our reasoning; the other is an actual program designed for UNC-Chapel Hill that reduces the number of courses that can possibly fulfill general education requirements to roughly 700.

    The report received quite a reaction, particularly in North Carolina. Some readers recognized that we were addressing a fundamental problem  -  the current all-inclusive approach that allows students to choose from among 4,700 courses and gives little guidance. We sought to restrict general education to the most essential fields of study for graduates.

    But others were unhappy with our report, for a wide range of reasons. We took stock of their criticism and offer our responses below.

  1. One of the most difficult decisions we had to make was to reduce the number of required courses in a foreign language students have to take. Our proposed UNC program reduced the requirement from three semesters to two, and we eliminated foreign languages in our optimal system.

    Critics were alarmed at even the slight reduction from three to two courses because they say we are entering a global age in which speaking a foreign language will be imperative for conducting business. While we agree that a student who is fluent in an important second language can have an advantage in international business, only a relatively small number of students will actually take that route. In fact, English is the language of business across the globe, and technology is making translation less dependent on individuals' abilities to translate for themselves. Furthermore, even three courses in a language are not enough to provide fluency.

    While combining a language with a business degree seems to be a smart choice right now, attaining fluency in a language should be an individual choice that students make about their own careers, not something that all students should have forced upon them. A majority of college graduates who take a foreign language rarely use it and wind up forgetting most of it.

    Furthermore, foreign language requirements are in part a vestige left over from the early years of U.S. higher education when it primarily educated ministers who were expected to read and interpret religious texts written in Greek, Hebrew, or Latin. Today, that sort of scholarship is for a small minority of students.

    Another reason foreign language instruction has been so emphasized is that studying grammar and syntax in a foreign language can help English speakers understand the structure of their own language. Yet most of the gain occurs in the first two courses; the marginal gain from taking a third class is likely to be minimal.

    While we understand that others disagree with us on this, we sense that some critics are using this relatively minor difference (we recommend two courses, not three) to justify dismissing our much more important recommendations.
  2. Quite a few detractors were upset by our deliberate emphasis on Western civilization and the United States more than other cultures. One commenter even suggested that such an emphasis is "racist"; another said we have a "weird and perverse hostility to multiculturalism."

    Our insistence on our own culture does not come from such animosity, but out of a desire for students 1) to learn their own culture, and 2) to become familiar with the most important ideas throughout history.

    For the first part, UNC students live in the United States and are part of the West. If you do not know the history, institutions, traditions, and conflicts of the culture you actually live in, your chances for success will be reduced much more than if you are unfamiliar with other cultures that will play little part in your future.

    Students need to learn some very important concepts to take their places as leaders in society, and those are not taught in courses about other countries and cultures. These include how the rights of political minorities are protected in our republican form of government, as discussed in Federalist Paper #10, and how our government is designed to have other checks and balances to fend off tyranny. Increasing awareness of such weighty matters is particularly important today, with students and recent graduates being strongly encouraged to vote, regardless of their understanding of the issues.

    For the second part, studying Western civilization encourages greater understanding of mankind's intellectual advance. The West developed a systematic study of the natural world that was unmatched elsewhere; today, when scientists in China and India conduct research, they almost exclusively use Western methodologies and a vast body of knowledge that, until recent decades, has been produced almost exclusively in the West. Universities everywhere emulate their Western counterparts, in recognition of the powerful and inclusive Western intellectual framework.

    It is a false leap of logic to say that acknowledging the West's place on the forefront of science and philosophy is a declaration of racial superiority. Indeed, one of the reasons for the West's dominant position in the intellectual history of the world may be that it was more open to ideas and technology from other cultures. The traditional study of Western civilization begins in the Middle East and northern Africa because that is where the first great civilizations arose.
  3. A small-town newspaper editorial said that we opposed "freedom" and "choice" because we want to restrict students' ability to choose from an enormous selection of courses.

    The claim that we are against choice shows a lack of understanding of the true purpose of a general education program. There is no reason to have a general education program except to make sure that all graduates have a specific base of general knowledge. That means restricting the course offerings, by definition. Otherwise, why not just have major subjects and electives and dispense with the whole general education concept?

    The current general education program at Chapel Hill fails to make necessary judgments about the relative merits of various courses; "American History to 1865" is considered equivalent to "The History of Hip-Hop Culture." We do not consider this to be a reasonable conclusion.

    As for the accusation that we are against freedom, we crafted our general education programs specifically to support and preserve freedom by ensuring that the young people who will eventually become leaders in government, business, and education  -  such as the graduates of the state's flagship public university  -  fully appreciate the underpinnings of liberty. The best way to do that is to focus on early U.S. history, as it is one long lesson in the development of liberty.
  4. That same small-town editorial suggested that it is unnecessary to concentrate on Western and U.S. history and culture because students already learned these things in high school.

    This is usually false: most students were likely exposed to U.S. history in high school but not at a more intensive collegiate level. In 2009, only 28 percent of UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen received credit for Advanced Placement U.S. History thus fulfilling a General Education history requirement.

    Most high school history students learn facts and broad concepts, such as Manifest Destiny, but rarely learn the connection between private property and freedom by reading a selection from John Locke's Second Treatise on Government  -  something that all highly educated U.S. students should be expected to do.

    There is considerable empirical evidence that recent college graduates have an appalling ignorance of such matters. A 2000 poll commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of graduating seniors at prestigious colleges and universities revealed the following:

    • Only 23 percent correctly identified James Madison as the "Father of the Constitution."
    • Even fewer  -  22 percent  -  were able to identify "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people" as a line from the Gettysburg Address.
    • Over one-third failed to identify the U.S. Constitution as establishing the division of power in American government.

    Clearly, general education models nationwide permit students to receive degrees without knowing essential knowledge of their own country's history and political system.
  5. In a similar vein to #4 is the criticism that students arrive on campus already knowing what they need to learn, so that reducing the number of general education courses is somehow hurting their education or restricting their freedom. Therefore, critics say, general education courses should be decided by student demand.

    But if students already know what they need to learn, then what is the point of a college? They could just go to the library or sit in front of a computer screen all day.

    It stretches the imagination to believe that entering freshmen are so advanced that they know exactly which topics will serve them best in the future. Few 18-year-olds have thought long and hard about what it means to be truly educated, consulting a variety of sources on the topic from both the past and the present in the process. One would hope that somebody on the university faculty or administration has done so and can choose general education courses with more insight than teenagers.

    Most degree programs are highly structured, because the faculty recognizes that students do not know what they need to learn as well as faculty members do. Why, then, should anyone assume that students know what they need in a general education program?
  6. Others contend that students can learn key skills such as writing and "critical thinking" "across the curriculum" as well as they can learn them directly.

    As "across the curriculum" has grown as a concept over the decades, so have employers' claims that students can no longer write or reason properly. We believe that some things are best tackled directly  -  it especially requires intensive and repetitive correction to make a competent writer. It is unrealistic to expect that all professors have the expertise or desire to correct students' writing. Most are concerned primarily with a student's grasp of the course's content.

    We strongly suggest a required course in logic as a means of directly addressing the failure to reason properly. Students should at least understand what a fallacy is and how to construct a proper argument from a set of premises. The inability to argue properly seems to be increasing in recent years  -  a return to the study of logic and rhetoric might well correct that trend.

    And teaching these skills directly doesn't mean that students can't learn them indirectly in other courses. It just hammers home the fundamentals to make further learning easier.
  7. Another point of contention is our removal of a "service learning" requirement. Service learning is a concept that is supposed to instill civic values through participation in volunteer work. By making it a requirement, it becomes a form of forced volunteerism  -  something more likely to instill negative attitudes toward volunteering rather than positive ones. Nobody has ever proven whether such a program has any long-term benefit whatsoever; it seems to be a "feel-good" activity that takes the place of real education.
  8. Other complaints focused on the idea that our proposed curriculum is "workforce-centric," meaning that we were attempting to shift the goal from a well-rounded liberal education to training for corporate or professional careers.

    Looking at our choices, this is hard to fathom. Our main changes were directly intended to improve reasoning prowess and to create a coherent cultural core, not introduce specific job skills. For instance, the addition of a statistics course, while helpful in the workplace, is just as important as a tool to parse information encountered in everyday life.

    Still, one of higher education's major goals is to prepare students for employment. That is why an overwhelming percentage of students attend college in the first place. If our general education program helps to make graduates more ready to enter the workforce, that's all for the best. And basic reasoning functions such as writing, logic, statistics, and the scientific method will help students no matter what their eventual careers turn out to be.

    In fact, sometimes it is hard not to wonder if the intent of some faculty is to render students unemployable except in academia or in political activism. Many in the humanities are openly antagonistic to capitalism and the private sector, where most of the jobs are.
  9. Some say general education is strictly an academic matter for the faculty to decide upon. That may be true for private schools, and it may also be true for departmental requirements for a degree major at any school. However, at a public university, the public has a right to say what is important for graduates to learn. The general education curriculum represents those courses that are essential for a person to operate within society; therefore, society  -  represented by the trustees, governors, or legislators  -  should have considerable input.

    More important, with a current program of 4,700 courses, it is apparent that UNC-Chapel Hill has abdicated its role to decide what is important. It offers vague values instead of the sort of hard decision-making that should be behind a general education program.
  10. Some argued that a physical education course is imperative for college students. Yet, it is only one course over a four-year period; it's hard to see how much long-term effect it will have. Students had gym every semester in high school, and most likely their lifelong patterns of physical activity have been fairly well-established, or they will make a conscious choice to participate in physical activities later in life.

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