Spandrels

One of my assignments this past year has been chairing a committee to redesign the general education core for my institution. But just stop and think about the ideas built into the words general and education and core. The operating assumption here is that there exists a core set of knowledge or thinking skills that every well-educated citizen ought to possess. Okay, let's just accept that whopper of an assumption at face value. Let's agree that every citizen should know some science, some math, and the difference between a colon and semicolon.

Now look at how most institutions achieve this goal. The standard approach is to draw up a distribution list of courses from various departments, name some high-minded categories, throw them all together and hope for the best. Moreover, these courses aren't usually aimed at "generally educating students." They are more likely a collection of intro 101 courses designed to service specific majors. In other words, students don't learn how how to think generally about science; they take an entry level course for biology majors, which is taught by a biologist focused mainly on cranking out more biologists.

General education cores are in many cases the equivalent of spandrels in architecture. A spandrel is the space between two arches. A mason sets out to build arches and only incidentally creates spandrels. Similarly, general education curriculum are often incidental collections of courses that serve purposes other than general education. Worse, teaching intro 101s is usually thought of as grunt work to be given to adjuncts or the most recent hires. Who wants to teach English 101 when one’s graduate work was in transgressive semiotic analysis of the hypertextual graphic novel?

One solution would be to take general education away from departments and make the core a department unto itself. At least that way someone would be thinking about the big picture and how it all fits together. I can’t see that happening, however. Faculty are too wed to their disciplines and it’s not economically viable to make psychology majors take Psych 101 and a core course in social science. Double dipping saves time and money.

Another idea would be to organize a core around something other than a collection of disciplinary subjects. Why not create four or five general education outcomes and then create multi-disciplinary departments for each. I’m intrigued by the idea of a core organized around big questions: What is the self? What does it mean to be human? Am I my brother’s keeper? What rights should be reserved to the individual? All of these questions have multiple disciplinary dimensions. They could be examined through the lens of art, science, social science, history, etc. And you could put faculty from various disciplines into teams assigned to explore a question with students.

Why not have a “Department of What is Truth?" or "What is Beauty?" It might be pretty cool to teach in the Truth Department (or be tenured in Beauty).

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