Why it’s so hard to get a sound general education from UNC schools

What passes for general-education requirements at most schools within the University of North Carolina system should concern educators, parents, students, legislators, and anyone else who cares about higher education in North Carolina. But does it? Welcome to a front line in the culture war.

After all, who’s to say what constitutes a sound general education nowadays? Critics of the current requirements put forth instruction in history, literature, science and scientific methods of inquiry, logic, mathematics, and art — things that, in my colleague George Leef’s words, “have stood the test of time at some of America’s most famous institutions of higher education.” Note the past tense.

Now, in terms of a general education, the governing assumption at most institutions appears to be one step removed from “anything goes.” What structure there is to general education, universities often provide in the form of politically tinged groupings.

Universities’ vision of education has been perverted. Education has always been seen as a way of freeing one’s mind from one’s prejudices and superstitions, whatever they may be. In this view, ignorance (that is, a lack of education) is considered that which insulates those prejudices and superstitions, and education removes that insulation. That having been removed, the goal of education is unfettered inquiry (why academic freedom — the freedom to pursue ideas — is so crucial). To reach that ideal, educators needed to ensure students were fully prepared, so they turned to those elements of instruction cited above.

Now, however, only a certain set of prejudices and superstitions are presumed to be operative among individual students. Educators work to ensure students are armed against only those things with the goal being to lead to inquiry only against them. Academic freedom is still invoked, but mostly in this context. Anyone on campus knows what those things are: mainly racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Under this new framework, it isn’t enough to teach history. History incorporates things outside the aegis. But “Third World History” and “African American History” (which address racism), “History of Women in America” (which addresses sexism), and “Lesbians in History” (which addresses homophobia) will do.

Literature? Too broad. “African American Writers,” “Gay Literature,” “Southern Gay and Lesbian Writers,” and “Gender and Literature: Women Writing South Asia” (a two-fer) will do. The same goes for art. Just narrow the focus, such as with “Queer Strategies in Studio Practice” or “Women in Visual Arts.”

Science and scientific methods of inquiry? Mathematics? Logic? Too … conducive to causing one to stray from the allowable fields of inquiry. You can have “Women & Gender in Science and Technology,” “Contemporary Science and Human Values,” and “Feminist Science Theory,” of course, but it’s better to teach other methods of inquiry and the reasoning behind them. Give them anthropology and sociology courses steeped in Marxism. Teach sexuality from the view of saving students from society’s oppressive taboos. Offer “Methods of Queer Cultural Analysis.” Explain how all viewpoints are equally valid and equally moral, and tolerate no dissent from this view.

Or give them pop culture, such as courses on the history of rock music, “history through film” classes, “Black Popular Culture,” “New Queer Cinema,” &c.

These approaches produce a vast array of courses, of course, making some form of rationing necessary. Offering courses in clusters and requiring students to pick and choose is most institutions’ solution. It’s an incomplete one, because at many institutions students can still hunt for and select courses that contribute to a sound general education. But it’s complete enough that they can also easily avoid those courses and instead opt for the lightweigh, politically charged dreck.

Well, who’s to say what constitutes a sound general education nowadays? As far as our UNC schools go, we all are.