General Education Smorgasbord Offers Mostly Junk Food

Most American colleges and universities have a “general education” curriculum – or at least they say they do. The idea behind general education is simple. Students should have to take an array of courses to ensure that they have a solid educational foundation for the rest of their studies.

Temple University, a well-known research university in Philadelphia, has recently adopted a new general education program that Inside Higher Education recently extolled here. It is built around four themes: globalization, sustainability, community-based learning, and “the Philadelphia experience.”

Has Temple strengthened its educational program – or weakened it?

It’s worth asking that question because Temple is going along with the trend of abandoning the kinds of courses that used to comprise the core of a college education and replacing them with courses that are supposedly more “relevant” and “exciting.”

College “gen ed” programs traditionally consisted of a group of courses regarded as the pillars of a broad education – courses such as surveys of American history and literature, a laboratory science, college-level mathematics. For example, the University of Dallas, which is a religious school, has a core curriculum that requires its students to take a set of courses covering literature, American and western civilization, science, math, fine arts, and social science.

Unfortunately, gen ed programs have been undermined at many schools. Instead of ensuring a broad, foundational education for all students, they have become smorgasbords with a wide variety of courses, few of which can be called basic. Temple’s new program exemplifies that trend. To complete their degree requirements, students will have to take 11 courses out of dozens offered, but it’s impossible to see how even the best combination adds up to much of an educational foundation.

First, students must complete Analytical Reading & Writing. Nearly all college students need to improve their reading and writing skills and based on their SAT scores, and Temple students are pretty much in the middle of the pack. Unfortunately, the reading and writing course is described as exploring “a single theme from the point of multiple disciplines.” What that often means in such courses is that the instructor chooses a “theme” that injects issues having nothing to do with improving the students’ compositional skills. (That is among the complaints Stanley Fish makes in his book Save the World on Your Own Time, which I reviewed here — that composition courses with “themes” often wind up focusing far more on the theme than on writing.)

Another requirement is to complete a course in Quantitative Literacy. Not “College Mathematics” because there is little if anything in any of the six course offerings that calls for more than middle school math ability. For example, in “Math for a Digital World,” students tackle questions like “How long will a million dollars last you, assuming it earns interest until you spend it?” and “Why does the VIN on your car have so many digits?” Another course, “Investing for the Future” has the students learn about personal financial management. The quantitative courses appear to be designed to allow the school to say that it requires college mathematics without making the large number of math-averse students actually grapple with anything beyond standard high school math.

Temple students will also have to take at least one “Race & Diversity” course. Across American higher education, there is a stupendous fixation on race and diversity and Temple wants to make certain that no student leaves without having an immersion. One course, “Immigration and the American Dream,” explores “assimilation, cultural identity and Americanization, exploitation and the American Dream, ethnic communities, gender, discrimination and stereotyping.” But if students don’t want that course, they can instead take “Dimensions of Diversity,” where they will delve into “racism, inequality, and social justice in industries such as sport, leisure, tourism and healthcare.”

Among other choices students have here, they could go for “Race in the Ancient Mediterranean,” “Race &Ethnicity in American Film,” and “Embodying Pluralism,” a course that “actively explores race, ethnicity, gender, class, and other social constructions.” (Dancing is important in the course because it is a “vehicle for social transformation.”)

Temple students must also take one course on “U.S. Society.” Here again, students find a kaleidoscope of narrow, trendy courses. Among the choices: “Sport and Leisure in American Society” (in which, “issues of race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, and socio-economic class will be prominent”), “Gender in America,” (focusing on questions like “How does living in a gendered society lead to differences in power and opportunities between men and women?”), “Urban Dynamics” (among other questions, students will consider how “gender, age, race/ethnicity, class, and citizenship status affect people’s experiences in different urban contexts”), and “Higher Education and American Life: Mirror to a Nation.”

While some of those course offerings might be good senior seminars, they don’t give students much in the way of basic knowledge about the United States.

In the realm of Science & Technology, students have to take two courses. Some of the courses are just about science, for example, “Science of Sound,” and “Brain Matters.” Others, however, have a decided preachiness about them. “Sustainable Environments” will cover “resource inequity” among other topics and “Gender Issues in Science & Technology” is about the “gendered nature of science” rather than science per se. Students who want to escape the homilies could take “Chemistry of Wine” instead. What is not required is anything like a traditional lab science course.

Temple English professor Stephen Zelnick, who was formerly Vice Provost for Undergraduate Study, is dismayed at the new program, writing that “it is surprising that the new GenEd course selection offers so many courses focusing upon racial issues, as if this were a problem that needs continuing attention.” He also observes that there is almost nothing to introduce students to the western intellectual heritage.

What Temple has done is painfully similar to what has happened at many other American colleges and universities. Instead of seeing to it that all students acquire a solid foundation of knowledge on which to build the rest of their education, it has chosen to let students pick from a wide array of courses that look into little nooks and crannies of human experience, often through the “lenses” of race, gender and other perspectives that so captivate American professors. That may keep the faculty happy, but it does a disservice to students.