WWTJD?

It’s been longer than usual since my last post, owing first to a three-week vacation, and then to two weeks’ intense struggle back at the office, consuming everyone’s attention. I started drafting a post — it’ll probably be up in a few days — but until the crisis passed it felt beside the point.

Up for grabs wasn’t the fate of the free world, but a longstanding requirement that every student in the California State University take three courses of general education in the upper division — that is, in the second half of the college career, after most other universities have stopped requiring GE at all.

This quirk in our curriculum has always been controversial.  Defenders argue that broad, liberal learning works best when it’s marbled throughout the baccalaureate, side by side with specialized work in the major, from start to finish.  They (okay, we) cite employer surveys that suggest robust GE is the preferred preparation for our graduates.  I’ve done presentations on this, and you can see them immediately to your right.

Detractors argue that while those three courses may be capable of greatness, a look through our campus catalogs tells a different story:  of randomness and aimlessness, where chronically impoverished departments (one president quipped it’s all the ones ending in “Studies”) pay the bills with apparently every course numbered higher than 300.  There’s little evidence of thoughtful design, let alone connecting to life after college.

Yet the state’s investment remains great — over 400,000 students required to take nine units apiece, regardless of their major or whether they started with us or at a community college.  It’s no surprise that we’re periodically asked why.  What’s surprising is that we never seem to have a good answer.

Last week the nine units survived the latest challenge, but it certainly won’t be the last.  When this comes up next time (I’m setting my watch for early 2015), it would be refreshing if the champions of GE could finally show something like disciplined curricular design or, I don’t know, evidence of student learning to justify the investment.

A few posts ago I wrote about a Summer Institute hosted by our Institute for Teaching and Learning, devoted to making liberal learning visible to students and others.  I hope it bears fruit.  Because believe it or not, there’s more at stake here than the survival of our under-subscribed departments.

Here comes another lapse into armchair history:  I think of the late 18th century as the high water mark for generalists.  That was when the framers of the constitution could dabble in political economy and nation-building, survey some wilderness, and tinker with clocks, or electricity, or dumbwaiters, or animal husbandry, and no one thought twice.  You could still fit most of what was worth knowing into a smart person’s head, and certainly into a household library.

Coincidentally, at the same time Eli Whitney started producing guns with endlessly interchangeable parts, promulgating the trick of specialization that would turbo-charge the Industrial Revolution.

And we took that trick of perspective, that newfound narrowness and depth, and ran with it.  From interchangeability it’s easy to get to the factory, the specialist, the assembly line, the academic department, and the plastic grocery bag.  We got really, really good at devising the elegant solution to the particular problem, swapping it out for the old version, and keeping everything else the same.  Parts improved, but the relationships among them were less dynamic.

After a couple of centuries exploiting that kind of discovery, we may be overdue to swing back to the comprehensive.  The urgent problems still left to solve are — not coincidentally — those of connectedness:  of social justice, of a globalization, of sustainability in a world whose landfills will need eons to break down those same little plastic bags, so useful for exactly one purpose.

We need our degree holders to think about those problems of connectedness, and asking What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?  We need them to solve the current and upcoming batch of problems, without wearing the blinders of the last set.  And we need to document the benefits of a curriculum that fosters this.

In the meantime I’m glad that, for at least a few more years, students in the CSU will still be asking the big questions, even as they specialize, for a nine-unit swath of the home stretch.

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