In Defense Of General Education: Still Relevant And Necessary

Warning signs spread across our national landscape like invasive species.  The sharp decline in the sense of community.  The increasing unwillingness of many individuals to concede gray areas in public policy matters.  The prevalence of ad hominem attacks substituting for informed and civil discourse.  These troubling trends compound abundant worries over the challenges facing our state and our nation.  They also connect in a less predictable fashion, building a case for the necessity of strengthening rather than discarding the courses of study commonly called general education.

Not hard to figure out why that is.

How can we navigate through complicated and dangerous international challenges when most Americans do not know where in the world these contested places are?  Much less their history, their strategic importance, or their economic, cultural, and religious makeup?  Conversely, we find that naturalized citizens know more about the roots of our republic than many native born citizens do.

How can folks unable to identify the three branches of government understand or intelligently discuss the hubbub over the unfolding assault on the administrative state?  Or recognize that two successive presidents poles apart in their governing philosophy sharing a penchant for using executive action to bypass Congress might not be a good thing?

How can we have so many college graduates avoiding instruction in economic and financial principles, and then wonder why many governmental, institutional, and household budgets resemble disaster areas?  Or realize that when ticking debt bombs go off, widespread fiscal damage results?

How many times have we heard that a raging dispute or polarizing controversy is fundamentally a failure to communicate?  We suffer no shortage of intelligent speakers, but the audience willing to listen and think through complexities and conflicts seems to be shrinking.  Increasingly, people are making critical judgments based on urban myths, Internet legends, fake news, and the latest entry on the list, alternative facts.

Education is the traditional cure for cultural and civic afflictions in our society.  Not surprising in these divided and competitive times, the debate over the cost and quality of higher education has taken an unexpected turn.  The notion is gaining currency that a liberal arts education has become an unaffordable luxury less relevant in the workplace.  The corollary contention is requiring students to take 40-50 credits in general education courses should be dispensed with, thereby cutting costs and shortening the path to employment.  For some critics, general education has become the academic equivalent of Obamacare – they want it repealed, not replaced.

Mention general education, and skeptical citizens perceive placeholder subjects that students take while deciding on a major, artificially inflating their GPA to improve job prospects.  Such thinking leads us down a cultural cul-de-sac.  During times when disinformation and misassumption are driving too much debate and decisionmaking, a premium should be placed on the classic elements of the all-round education offered by colleges and universities.  While there are cupcake courses still to be erased, the emphasis on research projects as an essential component of higher education is strengthening the rigor of the majority of courses.

What about the common claim there are too many English majors and not enough science graduates?  This ignores that even allegedly soft courses yield hard skills desirable to employers.  Several years ago, more than three hundred substantial employers described what they look for in hiring workers.  Their shopping list was not a limited set of majors.  Instead, they place a premium on individuals who can think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.  Rather than settling for narrow technical skills, they believe in the virtues of a broad education.  As to those English majors, years of exercises such as literary analysis hone critical thinking and writing skills useful in just about every profession.

Twenty years ago, Morris Tannenbaum, a retired CFO of AT&T, put this integrated relationship in clear focus: “Tomorrow’s scientists and engineers need grounding in the arts to stimulate their creativity, to help them perceive the world in new and different ways.  If nothing else, a blending of the arts and sciences can cement a foundation for learning how to learn, a trait that is proving all the more crucial at a time when knowledge simply won’t stay put.”  Incredible research and technology developments have sparked a knowledge explosion beyond what almost everyone could imagine then.

What is needed is a better way of conveying the practicality, functionality, and necessity of the traditional broad education.  Dr. James Mike, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Shippensburg University, is among those who believe the term general education has become a dated and distracting one.  Chemistry is his specialty, but well-rounded education is his passion.  Shippensburg demonstrates it is possible to strengthen hard sciences, adding engineering degrees to satisfy employer demands and boost student prospects, while at the same time overhauling general education to make it more relevant and rigorous.

Reviving broad education does not subtract from bolstering interest in science and technology.  Science and technology increase our capacity and our options.  But it is still the province of people to decide ethics and wisdom and equity of actions.  Statistical analysis can yield probabilities.  It cannot divine what is right or just or compassionate.  In a recent opinion piece, Elizabethtown College professor April Kelly-Woessner, pointing out we need to be smarter information consumers, asserted: “Producing young people who can sort fact from fiction is arguably more important to our collective well-being than is producing students who are good at math or science.”

Unfortunately, the starting point has moved farther from the finish line for many students.  Ask any college or university administrator or instructor about the time and cost of remedial work for subjects high schools are neglecting or shortchanging, and you will get an eye-opening dissertation.  At the same time, too many kids have been put on the four-year college conveyor belt when they would be better suited for technical education or the trades.  This is a shortcoming in the career guidance system, not an indictment of liberal arts programs.

Colleges and universities are not blameless for the declining perception of general education.  Many clung to the traditional curriculum and course menu for much too long, while rigor gave way to lighter requirements.  Costly mistake.  When civics and economic instruction are too easily avoided, the consequences are unfortunate in both the public marketplace of discussion and the workplace.

The problem of rising student debt load is forcing a needed reappraisal of courses and degree programs.  Individual programs are harder to defend if there are few good-paying jobs to be found after graduation.  There needs to be greater flexibility in how and when courses are offered, to give students a fighting chance of graduating on time.

In this age of accountability, institutions of higher learning are properly being called upon to demonstrate they are meeting the mission of turning out well-educated, workforce ready graduates.  In recasting gen ed requirements, schools are forced to make progress measurable.  In other words, merely exposing students to useful course content is not enough.  University administrators must prove students are absorbing the information and can capably apply the principles.  This change is not discretionary; accrediting agencies are beginning to insist upon it.

Higher education provides essential preparation for a career and for participation in civic life.  Those who deplore the drop in civic engagement ought to be rallying to the defense of broad-based education, hard and soft sciences in combination.  Society benefits if more people are able to advance a detailed argument, rather than merely concoct fiery talking points and provocative soundbites.  And if more people can counter with logic and reason, rather than resorting to denial and disparagement.

Decades ago, humorist Will Rogers anticipated today’s troubling state of affairs: “There is nothing as easy as denouncing.  It don’t take much to see that something is wrong, but it does take some eyesight to see what will put it right again.”  Equipping our citizens with a solid, well-rounded education gives them the eyesight, the intelligence, and the analytic ability required to put our many problems right again.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.