For the last few days I’ve been visiting the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya. Faculty and administrators here are in the midst of writing their general education program review, which has become a blueprint for reform. They asked me to read an early draft and meet with various stakeholders, giving them advice before they make the report final.
I’ve never been to Africa, and so jumped at the chance. (You can see my gawky tourist snapshots here.) Since getting here, my first impressions have corroborated what I knew of Africa from a distance. Kenya has its share of challenges with wealth distribution, resource management, and government. It’s doing better than some of its neighbors, with a shaky but visibly emerging democratic tradition after years of dictatorship.
Between meetings a couple of the administators chatted about a recent scandal involving Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Baraza. Last New Year’s Eve she was entering a shopping mall when the security guard there — also a woman — stepped up to frisk her. The judge was offended, claiming that she was above such things. It escalated until Baraza went to her bodyguard’s car, pulled out a gun, and used it to threaten the mall cop.
A couple of things I took away from this story:
– My hosts told it in a very funny way. They grew up in a Kenya where high officials really were above the law, and so they’re inured to some of the scarier story points.
– Yes, this is a country where you get frisked going into the mall, and the judges — who face nothing like the threats leveled at their counterparts in, say, Mexico — nonetheless bring armed bodyguards to go shopping.
My hotel is a gated compound that hosts a casino, a few swimming pools, a nightclub, and eight restaurants, leaving me little reason to breach the perimeter. The entrance to the university has five security guards, one with a mirror on a stick to check the underside of each entering car. Yet the country feels safe. At the end of each day we leave the enclosed university to walk back to the enclosed hotel, on the same road the students take. The biggest threats are dust and swerving cars.
The country has set an ambitious course for itself called Vision 2030. The plan is supported by three pillars, one of them promimently featuring (surprise!) education. Like another country I work in, Kenya wants more graduates. It sees this as prerequisite to meeting challenges in the environment, social and economic justice, and its future material well-being and civic health. So, same siren song, poorer siren.
My work schedule been the typical round of on-campus meetings, and the best (as usual) was with students. USIU is a private non-profit, which by a quirk of history enjoys U.S. regional accreditation. It draws a well-to-do enrollment, the great majority entering prepared for college learning. Persistence and grad rates are high. Curriculum is on the American model, with generous helpings of breadth.
Despite the fortress entrance, the community looks for opportunities to leave the bubble. Many students live off campus, in apartments along that road we walk. Some take a semester off to earn tuition, starting and running fast food businesses along the same corridor. Service learning is required in every degree. Their parents work for the civil service or NGOs. Most of the students I met are business majors, and everyone worries about the employability afterward — faculty and administrators focus on it, the students worry about it.
Within this context, I learned from the students that USIU’s general education has made a poor case for itself. Those who came in curious about the world like general education. Those on a mission to get in and get out employable — or who just already knew what they like — didn’t see the need to take Classes in Other Things. Some of them chose business because it sounded broad. Two — TWO — expressed a passion for finance, and would have been happier with grad-school-style narrowness.
The more they talked to each other about the value of liberal learning, the more the skeptics came around. I tend to cheerlead about such things, but tried to cast my questions as hypothetical (e.g. “what if you were convinced these courses improve your ability to innovate, and employers look for that?”). I probably skewed the results by habit. Hell, they were probably already skewed because someone flew halfway around the world to come hear about their GE, making it seem at least noteworthy.
But the upshot is this: advocates and skeptics alike, the broadly curious and the narrowly dedicated, all said the GE courses needed to connect to the outside world, and NOT to the major. That was my big lesson.
I think this generation lives with connectedness, growing up with interdisciplinarity like ours didn’t. The business majors don’t need “English for Business Majors” and “Math for Business Majors” and “Chemistry for Business Majors.” They came in knowing all these subjects connect in unpredictable ways.
But they do want relevance and timeliness. They want their GE heavy on skills, and lighter on content, which they get from the web anyway. Many said GE looks too much like a rerun of high school. This group agreed that if we’re set on keeping content in, then we need to emphasize its usefulness and relevance. As one put it, maybe oversimplifying to make a point — “don’t give me biology, give me first aid.”
For now, USIU’s solution is to connect faculty, and strengthen shared intellectual experiences like community service, the First Year Experience, and capstone courses. With an enrollment under 5,000, they can go for more unity and consistency than we can in the CSU, where we enroll over 400,000 and our GE is taught mostly in the community colleges.
So I don’t think we’ll have their emerging brand of unity on a large scale. But that relevance thing stuck with me.