Ad Hoc General Education Committee

More Thoughts on General Education

Written By: Robert Wolff - Feb• 21•12

Posted for David Blitz, Department of Philosophy (blitz@ccsu.edu)

The following issues seem to be unresolved in our discussion of General Education, and I want to contribute my perspective on this:

1/ What is General Education:
While the mandate of the current committee did not include a definition of General Education, this is essential in order to be clear on what we should, and should not include under it. There are, it seems to me, two aspects of GenEd as currently instantiated at CCSU:
  1. General Education aims at producing the “well-rounded” individual who can converse and intervene on many topics. I’ll term this the “well-rounded” criterion.
  2. General Education aims at providing the student with the skills needed to be successful in their academics and in life. I’ll term this the “needed skills” criterion.

Our current General Education program combines both in the “study” and “skill” areas. I believe, however, that these are both utopian and regressive goals: utopian because no selection of 40 credits in various areas can achieve goals (1) and (2), and regressive because it places a heavy burden on students to perform well, not only in their major, but in an uncoordinated selection of courses in areas in which they may or may not be interested. Instead, I’d propose a more modest definition of what Gen Ed could be that would be more beneficial both to faculty and students:

  1. General Education is a distribution requirement in the Liberal Arts that permits a student, based on choices within a number of knowledge areas, to broaden their learning in a reasonable way beyond their major and minor.

Currently, CCSU has 4 skill areas and 4 study areas, as well as the “I” designation for International courses. This should be reduced to 4, at most 5 knowledge areas. This is what the DHE and legislature intended in its regulations that specify a selection of courses in the  “humanities, arts, natural and physical sciences, mathematics, and social sciences” [section 10a-34-15(c)]. This is what was proposed by a previous GenEd reform committee headed by Tim Craine (retired chair of the math department) – which had 4 general areas. Four areas (combining math and natural sciences, with “personal development” as a fourth area) are also what is proposed by Eric Bergenn, President of the SGA in his recent, and most welcome initiative to have a student voice in this process.

I should add a critique of the following misconception: General Education is not a program, rather it is a distribution requirement. A program, such as a major or minor, is a connected sequence of courses including introductory courses, prerequisites courses, and often a capstone experience, mostly within a discipline but possibly including co-requisites in another related discipline, or an interdisciplinary focus on a specific area (such as Peace Studies). This is not what General Education can or should be. The courses offered are a selection from the various disciplines, but they are not correlated or sequenced, nor can they be, given that faculty are not trained as specialists in General Education, and do not and cannot meet in the intensive way they do to determine their major and minor disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) programs. General education is at once too vast and too vague to allow this in any meaningful way, despite utopian wishes to the contrary. Perhaps this could be accomplished at the more elementary level of high school, but at the more advanced level of the university this is not possible, and therefore, on my view, to be avoided.

2/ What we should do
What we should do is summed up in what I term the “3 C’s” of General Education – container, compartments and content: (1) decide the size of the container; (2) decide the compartments of the container; and (3) provide the content.
  1. Decide the size of the “container”: State regulations used to require a minimum 1/4 of 120 credits in Gen Ed; this was raised to 1/3 in 1987. We now require 1/3 of 130 (based on requirements for Education majors); this should be reduced to 40 and we should consider the advisability, given the increasing demands of the disciplines, to request a reduction back to the pre-1987 number of 30.
  2. Determine the “compartments”: As suggested above this should be 4 or at most 5. Four would include (1) humanities and the arts; (2) social and behavioral sciences; (3) natural sciences; (4) mathematics and computer sciences. A fifth might well be the “personal development” area proposed by Eric.
  3. Provide appropriate “content”: Departments and programs should allow students to take a sampling of courses at the introductory level, which helps some students in choosing their major; as well as “mini-sequences” of 3 courses, with two above the introductory level (200 level or beyond).
3/Transfer Credits

An additional desideratum of General Education reform is to facilitate complete transfer of credit earned at community colleges and other CSU universities, as well as other institutions of higher education. At the present time courses must be matched with “equivalent” CCSU courses. The burden for this falls on the limited staff at the Registrar’s Office; when they cannot find an obvious equivalent, a course is transferred as 1xx, 2xx or even 3xx, not counting for satisfaction of a student’s major, minor or Gen Ed, but simply present as a credit towards graduation. This is a major reason that CCSU students graduate, on average, with more than 122 credits, and indeed, according to a recent statement by a senior administrator, with 9 credits more, on average, than graduates from other CSU universities. Students can have this modified, but only at the price of going from department to department beseeching department chairs to sign equivalents forms.

What happens, in the general case, is that students “repeat” a course in a discipline they have already studied, in order to satisfy the CCSU Gen Ed requirement. I have seen transcripts of students who had a 300 level course in Philosophy, not the same or similar to any we happen to offer at CCSU, take a 100 level General Education course in Philosophy. This wastes the student’s time, and constitutes a surcharge we impose of them in terms of added tuition cost. It also wastes our limited resources and takes up a seat that another student needs for graduation.
The simplest solution is to have courses earned elsewhere, particularly elsewhere in public higher education in Connecticut, transferred based on the course designator, not the course number, where each “compartment” (or sector) of General Education has a specified number of program designators which satisfy it for purposes of transfer. For example, “social and behavior science” could be satisfied by Political Science, Economics, Anthropology, to name just three. A student with a course in Anthropology, even if that exact or equivalent course is not offered at CCSU, would nonetheless have the course count as satisfying that sector. There would be no need for the Registrar’s Office to scour our catalog looking for the exact or equivalent course, nor for the student to waste their time going around looking for signatures for equivalents.

4/ Avoid Errors of the Past
The experience of the last 20 years inclines me to the following “don’ts”:
1. Avoid too much of a good thing: Not every “good” area or skill can be included in General Education. Otherwise, we could readily fill a student’s 120 credits with courses that would be good for them, but would leave no room for their major and, where appropriate, minor. What we should not do is to repeat the tragedy of the commons. As we know from our colleagues in economics, this involves a “commons” shared by a number of individuals – say, common grazing land shared by a number of farmers in the classical case. If each farmer only uses the common land occasionally, all is well; but if each uses it extensively, the commons will be overgrazed and useless to all. Put another way: Some of a good thing is good, and more may be better; but too much of a good thing can boomerang and be a bad thing. Think pizza slices: one is good, two is better; a dozen at a time gives a stomach ache.
By overloading General Education, we recreate the tragedy of the commons. We strain the resources of the university, particularly in the School of Arts and Sciences, where in practice most demand for multi-section 100-level General Education courses is met by part time faculty; and we force students to take requirements not linked to their major, minor, or for that matter, their personal interests. Rather than a reasonable “broadening”, we burden students in areas where they perform poorly, thereby decreasing their GPA and placing some in jeopardy of not graduating at all.

2. Avoid special pleadings, special interests, and in particular requirements satisfied by a single department or program: This may lead to bottlenecks, delaying graduation for students. We can’t have every student dependent on a single department, which may face unforeseen difficulties such as retirements or modified strategic goals. This applies to issues such as the physical education requirement and the foreign language requirement, which are dependent on a single department for fulfillment. Take the example of the physed requirement, which originally accounted for 2 credits (explaining why students need 122 credits to graduate from CCSU). When for internal reasons related to other departmental activities the department could not provide this full amount, the university had to substitute a university requirement (in part in library skills), adding to the complexity of the program.
As a general rule, each sector of General Education should have a number of departments offering courses that satisfy that sector, facilitating student choice and avoiding bottlenecks to graduation. I would go so far as to say that there should be no additional “requirements” beyond the satisfaction of the 4 or 5 sectors, including mathematics, modern language, physical education, etc. All of these are “good” ideas, the sum of which, in practice, falls under the caveat of point (1) above of too much of a good thing. Individual programs could well specify (and currently do) co-requisites for their major. For example, the English department might wish to have their majors display competency at the 112 or even 125 level in a modern language, and we should allow them to do so; but to impose that on all students, irrespective of major, is an error. The same, it seems to me, applies to even to mathematics. (I am not sure about English composition, though I think that most of what is done in English 110 should be done in high schools, or as part of the writing component within major courses.)

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