Essential Knowledge

Colleges and universities spend a great deal of time and effort deciding upon their general education requirements. General education’s purpose is to give students a solid grasp of generally essential knowledge and skills in an efficient manner; while their degree major gives them depth, or expertise, in a particular field, and often forms the basis for their career, the general education curriculum is supposed to provide breadth.

The results of general education programs in recent years have been suspect, at best. The book Academically Adrift cites an alarming statistic that, according to Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) tests, 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college. Much of that failure can be attributed to weak general education requirements, as they provide the skills tested by the CLA and are often completed in the first two years of school.

Additionally, at a time when higher education is necessarily becoming more focused on the eventual employment of graduates, the main complaints employers have about recent graduates is about their so-called “soft skills,” the very proficiencies that general education programs are supposed to improve.

The problem has many roots. One is the absence of strong, visionary leaders who see the need to restrict the general core curriculum to truly essential topics and who also have the necessary spine to make hard judgments in the face of intense opposition from entrenched interests. Where good core curriculums exist, one is likely to find strong leadership, such as Belmont Abbey College’s president, Bill Thierfelder.

Another is faculty control over the general education curriculum, which leads to too much self-interested input from too many vested interests. As a result, general education programs often wind up as bizarre confusions of overly broad and sometimes petty criteria, slapped together with processes that feature the worst aspects of campus politics, design-by-committee inclusiveness, and political correctness. Students at many colleges can satisfy general education requirements by choosing among hundreds and even thousands of courses—many of them best described as minutiae or extravagances—or must navigate through a maze of confusing and overlapping criteria.

Sometimes, the simple approach is better, and, in my view this is one of those cases. General education is best when based on a single question: what knowledge and skills are essential for thinking, productive, and engaged workers and citizens to possess?

The answer can be boiled down to three broad areas. One is the ability to reason; another is an awareness of the world’s most important ideas, the ones that have affected the course of history and the modern world; the third is a high degree of cultural awareness. 

Many general education programs claim their purpose is to teach reason, or “critical thinking” as it is commonly called today, but they do so in ways that defy their goal by expecting students to pick it up in context of other subjects. Reason is best learned directly and arduously, not by osmosis.

There are four subject areas that will efficiently provide students with sufficient reasoning prowess. The first is logic—pure reason—which teaches how to draw proper conclusions from a sequence of statements. The second is laboratory science, which grounds students in the scientific method that employs empirical experimentation to draw a conclusion. The next is statistics, which teaches students how to reason using trend patterns and probabilities.

Writing is also important to one’s ability to reason (as well as being an essential skill for success after college). Writing is applied thinking—learning to write well also means learning to organize one’s thoughts coherently. It can be subdivided into two courses; one to focus on the primary building blocks of writing, composition and grammar, and the other to foster the use of rhetoric (argumentation). The ability to argue properly is often absent in today’s students, and in professionals in the public arena as well. Too often, people today rely on emotions when faced with contrary opinions, or confuse ad hominem attacks with reasoned arguments.

While teaching to reason is noncontroversial, or should be, learning about the great ideas and culture can be more problematic politically. However, some ideas obviously stand taller than others. Mankind has been wrestling with some central questions for thousands of years, including:

What is justice? What is truth? Is morality universal or is it relative? Does mankind have a purpose? What does an individual owe to society, and vice-versa?

Perhaps the best way to educate people to think deeply and consider the long-term implications of actions and events is to introduce them to these questions directly through a single, required philosophy course.

Politics and economics are also essential for one’s understanding of the world of ideas. Too often today, students graduate without knowing much about either but feeling as if they do, as many social science and humanities professors teach their own brands of superficial or false economics and political theory. Students’ lack of political and economic understanding is frequently appalling; they often condemn business and capitalism without being able to provide a simple definition of capitalism, let alone describe the key connection between private property and freedom.

A required course in comparative political and economic systems would address students’ ignorance, so that when they vote or discuss concepts like capitalism, they actually know what they’re voting or talking about.

Other great ideas can be introduced via courses that also provide cultural context—the two concepts are closely tied together. History is the best starting point, giving students several key skills and perspectives. It is where thought and action join, a great laboratory of human cause and effect that leads to greater understanding of the possible or likely. Furthermore, it provides an awareness of the unfolding of events and ideas, creating an accurate timeline of events in students’ minds that is crucial for knowledge of the world. 

Not all history is equally valuable—the study of Western civilization is richer and more pertinent to U.S. students than other branches. Like it or not, we are part of the West and draw almost all of our culture from it. Furthermore, Western civilization, far more than any other branch of history, includes the vast range of ideas that influenced human events. 

One thing history teaches is that, without unity, large nations such as ours crumble and fall. Our nation increasingly lacks a sense of the “contract between the generations,” as described by Edmund Burke, to hold us together. This implied contract suggests that the current generation should honor and preserve the wisdom of past generations and hand over to future generations lives of promise, while the more recent trend is to divide generations by regularly recreating the culture anew.

An understanding of how our country came to be and the underlying ideas behind its formation is central to such a contract. The United States is the first, most successful, and most benevolent example of a nation founded on ideas, and therefore it provides deep insight into the world of ideas. All American students should be exposed to the thought of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Burke and read some of the U.S. canon of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.

Another necessary reason for grounding students in the American founding and its subsequent history is social cohesion. The emphasis on the multicultural model, which glorifies separate cultural traditions, sets people at odds with each other. If we are to have a unified nation that pulls together when needed, one culture must dominate. Fortunately, the traditional American model is rooted not in ethnicity but in principles of individual rights, and therefore is ideal for that role. Since we currently have so many newcomers to our country, it is imperative that we introduce them to our underlying principles.

An extremely important part of the culture that is often ignored on campus is religion. It is fundamental to the world of ideas and to culture; most students could benefit from some type of comparative religion course. The goal would be a better understanding of basic beliefs and concepts rather than conversion. (This last statement obviously doesn’t hold true for religious colleges.)

And that’s about it. Certainly, it would be nice to include many other topics. But the need for efficiency means that many staples of existing general education programs, such as literature, foreign languages, or art appreciation, must be excluded. While desirable, they cannot truly be called essential for an understanding of the world.

Restricting general education courses to a select few will be extremely unpopular with some faculty. There are large numbers of teaching jobs at stake: many departments that now teach popular general education courses could lose half or more of their students. If that were to occur, financial sanity dictates that faculty jobs in those programs be cut. (Of course, new jobs will be created at the same time for specialists in the essential subjects.)

But this is not about professors and their jobs; it is about the intellectual development of students. For a long time, academia has been hesitant to make judgments about what knowledge is the most valuable. As a result, many general education programs are of little value. Our institutions of higher learning can, and should, do better.