Inquiry #18: How Solid is the Core?

The study examines the general education requirement and two bellwether majors, English and history, at 11 North Carolina universities:

  • Appalachian State University
  • East Carolina University
  • Fayetteville State University
  • North Carolina Central University
  • North Carolina State University – Raleigh
  • University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
  • University of North Carolina – Charlotte
  • University of North Carolina – Greensboro
  • University of North Carolina – Pembroke
  • University of North Carolina – Wilmington
  • Western Carolina University

The study is based on information provided by the institutions in their university catalogs for the years 2002 or 2003. Different university catalogs covered slightly different years and periods—some were for a single academic year, for instance, and some for two academic years. We have taken into account the various ways in which individual universities design and publish their catalogs, and have effectively compared all the institutions for the same time frame.

General education requirements at the institutions tend to make up about one third of the total credit hours required for graduation. Most baccalaureate programs consist of 122-128 credit hours, of which general education accounts for 42-45 credits.

The typical general education requirement is composed of five or six components, including English, Humanities, the Social Sciences, the Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Physical Education, and—more often than not today—a multicultural or diversity element.

General education almost always contains an English or communications component, consisting usually of a two-semester freshman composition sequence, often with an introductory speech course as well.

The core of most general education programs is made up of Humanities, the Social Sciences, and the Natural Sciences, most often in approximately equal parts of about 12 credits each. The Humanities component usually includes literature, history, philosophy, and fine arts, sometimes in approximately equal portions. The Social Sciences component usually requires two or three disciplines to be chosen from among the disciplines of sociology, psychology, economics, anthropology, and political science, and a few others. The Natural Sciences component usually requires about 4 credits in mathematics, and about 8 credits in laboratory sciences, such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, geography, and physics.

The Physical Education component is usually limited to a course or two totaling no more than 2 or 3 credit hours, and the multicultural or diversity component usually consists of a single 3-credit course.

The study examined the quality of the general education requirement in terms of its mandating the kinds of courses that ought to make up general education. For example, general education should include:

  • a two-semester composition course for freshmen
  • some type of introductory literature course
  • a course in Western history or Western civilization
  • a United States history course
  • a four-semester foreign language requirement
  • and a rigorous science course.

Ten of the 11 institutions included require a two-semester freshman composition course. The exception, Appalachian State University, requires only a single-semester expository writing course, but also requires an introductory literature course with “continued emphasis on writing through literary essays.”

Just under half of our schools—45%—offer a course in remedial (aka developmental) English. The presence of a remedial course among the offerings of the English department suggests that the institution is knowingly accepting candidates who are not adequately prepared in writing skills, and that it uses this course to try to bring the new students up to entrance-level standards.

A similar fraction—45%—requires an introductory literature course.

Only 36% require some type of Western history or Western civilization course. By contrast, 64% require a multicultural or cultural diversity course, at best a sign of interest in non-Western cultures, but all too often an exercise in politically correct “education.”

Thus, the institutions within our sample were more likely to require a cultural diversity course than an introductory literature course or a course on Western history or Western civilization.

Not one institution requires all undergraduates to take a course in United States history.

Only East Carolina University requires the 12 credit hours in a foreign language needed to ensure a basic competence. Overall, the institutions studied are seven times as likely to require a course in cultural diversity as they are to mandate foreign language competence.

Not a single institution requires science courses as rigorous as those taken by undergraduates majoring in a scientific discipline. In fulfillment of general education requirements, students are given the option of taking science courses adapted to non-science students, sometimes specifically labeled “for the non-science major.” At UNC Wilmington, students may choose CHM 103, Chemistry in Everyday Life, “A terminal, relatively non-mathematical one-semester course in chemistry for the nonscience major,” which satisfies the laboratory requirement. Students may also choose PHY 103, Great Ideas in Physics, that not only “Introduces the nature of science to the nonscientist by emphasizing the concepts underlying four great ideas in physics,” but also “Explores the mutual influence of science and the humanities (literature, philosophy, history, and the arts).”

When the courses are not labeled for non-science majors, students have to rely on titles and course descriptions. The non-laboratory requirement of the Natural Sciences Perspective for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, may be satisfied with PHYS 16, How Things Work, described as “Demystifying the working of objects such as CD players, microwave ovens, lasers, computers, roller coasters, rockets, light bulbs, automobiles, clocks, etc.” Or a student might avoid the traditional natural sciences entirely by choosing PSYC 10, General Psychology. At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, avenues of such possible avoidance include ATY 253, Introduction to Physical Anthropology and NTR 213, Nutrition Facts & Fantasies.

Offering students a large number of course options tends to weaken the prescriptive effect of general education. In Humanities, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences—the three areas that together comprise the core of general education—students are given such latitude in their choice of courses that little, if any, common knowledge is assured.

On average, students are required to take only 3% of qualifying courses offered in the Humanities, 4% of such courses in Social Studies, and 5% of such courses in Natural Sciences (excluding mathematics). Only three institutions require students to take more than one in ten of qualifying courses in these three areas combined. Only one school—North Carolina Central University—mandates 100% of listed courses in the three areas.

For students majoring in English, one third of the courses required for the major are designated by name. Students are required on average to take 18% of the department’s available courses to graduate.

Institutions vary in their requirement of a Shakespeare course for English majors, with 36% requiring such a course, 27% requiring a survey course including the Bard, and 36% not requiring any reading of Shakespeare.

For students majoring in history, 30% of the courses required for the major are designated by name. Students are required on average to take 15% of the department’s available courses to graduate.

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