what the United Nations can do for GE

In a couple of months, a group of educators who’ve been reforming California general education (“GE”) will meet at the state capital for a culminating conference.  As the summation of a six-year, multi-institutional project the experience will be a little poignant, but organizers Debra David and Julie Stein are avoiding the elegiac.  This’ll be mostly forward-looking.

One of the key ideas to persist after the grants run out:  thematic linkages across GE courses and disciplinary borders.

In reviewing the conference and publication materials, I keep finding my head returning to this idea, and a meeting I attended last August at — of all places — the United Nations.

UN audience

I was there at the invitation of Dawn Digrius, who leads a CSU project called STEM Collaboratives. She addressed the meeting on water and sustainability efforts in Central America, the focus of her research and teaching over the past several years.

Both her U.N. and CSU work are driven by Dawn’s belief in interdisciplinarity, and its critical role in addressing our most urgent “wicked” problems.

I’ve advocated for the use of wicked problems on mostly student engagement grounds: liberal learning and GE will feel less pointless if we can more explicitly connect them to the outside world.

UN jumbotronWhat stuck with me from the U.N. session was the higher sense of real-world stakes, of actual peril. From the planet’s perspective, whether or not California manages to educate more of the under-served barely matters; the world has some very big problems on its hands, and too few ideas for solutions.

And in the handful of cases where we have ideas, we lack collective will.

Too often I’ve been thinking of these topics as interesting fodder for undergraduate curriculum.  Here they’re red-hot and desperate; one participant was so angered by the proposed solutions that security had to escort him out.

I left Dawn’s session wondering how more of our students could get a sense of that passion, could understand first-hand that within their lifetimes will come a suite of interrelated crises whose solutions will be controversial, hard to effect, and utterly dependent on their generation’s boundary crossing, far‑sightedness, and, in fact, liberal learning.

UN STEM CollaborativesMy colleagues in California GE reform have periodically floated the idea of a statewide minor in one of various wicked problems: sustainability, food security, human health. The idea is that a student from any public college or university might select GE courses on an interdisciplinary theme, culminating in an upper‑division GE capstone in the same theme at a receiving public university. Same number of GE credits required, but more integrative choices made along the way, incentivized by the minor and noted on the transcript.

Dawn has suggested that as we think about such pathways, we peg them to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Leaving the meeting at the U.N., I was persuaded that it was not only sensible, but imperative.

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