Too General, Not Enough Education

General education is roughly one-third of an NC State education—maybe even a little more for some majors. It is obviously considered to be an important—perhaps the most important—part of the State experience.

But what effect will all that effort have on graduates? The Pope Center took a close look at State’s program with a new report. The results were disappointing.

General education consists of the courses that a college or university requires a student to take in order to be a “well-rounded person.” A well-designed program can perform quite a few functions with a relatively small number of courses. These functions include improving writing and reasoning skills that will enhance job performance in almost any field, which is especially important today since graduates are likely to change career paths more frequently than in the past.

Society also benefits from a well-designed general education program because it teaches students about citizenship, ethics, and culture. A good general education program should elevate a student’s sense of what it means to be good, moral, or just.

When poorly devised, however, a general education program will merely give a student a confusing collection of unconnected facts and trivial theories.

NC State’s program has the appearance of serving serious purposes. Yet it falls short due to a lack of focus and the low expectations placed on students. Additionally, much of the existing focus is mired in political correctness and academic faddishness.

On the positive side, it remains somewhat true to the school’s emphasis on science and technology by requiring two courses each in science and math. Yet even here it is possible, even likely, for non-science students to evade truly rigorous courses. They can fulfill science requirements with courses such as MEA 120: The Dinosaurian World and CS 210: Lawn and Sports Turf. And they can satisfy math credits by taking pre-calculus courses that most students at NC State complete in high school.

Much of the program’s problems seem to arise from an unclear understanding of what general education should accomplish. Perhaps its most commonly accepted function is to provide students with a “breadth” of knowledge. However, too often—including at NC State—this is interpreted to mean that students should be offered as broad a selection of courses as possible.  This is exactly the wrong course of action to ensure that students have a breadth of knowledge, for it enables them to choose many courses that are either very narrow, trivial, or both. At NC State, they can satisfy general education requirements with such light or narrow fare as PB 219: Plants in Folklore, Myth, and Religion, HI 374: Visual Culture of Modern South Asia, and HON 391; Music and Social Life.

It is better for a school to construct a program with a few key courses that introduce broadly important themes to ensure that students are indeed getting that breadth of knowledge rather than a potpourri of isolated trivia.

A well-crafted general education program also provides students with a paradigm that supports open inquiry of the world, incorporating the most significant ideas of the past and present in doing so. It requires considerable design to get the various parts to work together to produce such a paradigm and to ensure that the graduate possesses both reasoning skills and essential knowledge.

NC State’s “smorgasbord” approach—giving students many courses to choose from to fulfill a checklist of general education requirements—is no substitute for the sort of interlocking, mutually supportive building blocks necessary to induce good objective reasoning. Even a program comprised of strictly good courses may not add up to a good general education program.

With so much of the program devoted to providing unfocused “breadth,” not enough attention is devoted to the core skills of writing and reasoning. Particularly glaring is the requirement of only one writing course.

Furthermore, the program almost seems to deny the concept of core knowledge, instead replacing it with core “sentiments” suggesting that diversity and environmentalism are good. This is accomplished largely by the inclusion of two “Co-requirement” classifications, Global Knowledge and United States Diversity. Students can complete the co-requirements at the same time they fulfill other requirements.

For example, students can take ENG 267: LGBTQI Literature to fulfill a Humanities requirement and a US Diversity co-requirement at the same time. As a result, students looking to graduate on time may prefer to take LGBTQI Literature rather than ENG 252: Major American Writers, since Major American Writers only satisfies the Humanities requirement.

Such encouragement to take narrow, politically inspired courses in the Humanities may well be the main reason why the co-requirements were created. This is a major flaw, for the Humanities should be the central discipline in a general education program, providing an intellectual framework for other subjects and emphasizing the great ideas and events that have altered the course of history. While a State student can choose to take excellent Humanities courses that create some of that framework, chances are they will not. After all, because of the co-requirements, a course such as AFS 346: Black Popular Culture is given a higher priority than HI 205: Western Civilization Since 1400, despite the latter being a fundamental building block for any generally educated person.

It is quite possible for a student to choose a good core curriculum at North Carolina State; he or she can choose among many rigorous science courses, college level math, and humanities courses such as Major American Writers and Western Civilization Since 1400.

But is the average student likely to do so?  The answer is no. Some students may be mature enough to take challenging and meaningful general education courses even though it will take time away from other pursuits, but many are not. College is a time when students are seeking, not just answers, but the right questions—they are likely only to realize what they need to know after they have completed the general education program (and perhaps even later, after spending some time gaining experience in the adult working world).  Consider how many drop out, how many change majors, how many change career paths after graduation.

And that is where the knowledge and experience of faculty is supposed to play their part, to help students make their way through the maze of the unimportant and irrelevant to gain knowledge of the important.

Instead, the university runs away from that crucial function. Rather than separating the intellectual wheat from the chaff, NC State’s general education program offers ample opportunities to avoid importance and rigor. Quite a few of the 714 courses are not really college material but grist for the “Features” section of a large daily newspaper or popular magazine. These include PRT 200; Leisure Behavior, Health, and Wellness, which meets a Social Science requirement. Its catalog description reads:

Leisure as a lifelong resource for human satisfaction and fulfillment; its potential for physical, mental, social and emotional growth and emotional growth and development of the individual. Leisure opportunity areas presented and evaluated.

Another trendy concept is “interdisciplinary studies,” which NC State raises to a major branch of knowledge such as the humanities, social sciences, or sciences by requiring that two courses (five credit hours) be so designated. While it may be true that many new scientific discoveries are in the intersection between two subjects, in practice interdisciplinary studies in the general education program lead to such meager offerings as FLG 440: Green Germany: Nature and Environment in German Speaking Cultures, SMT 232; Recycling to Create a Sustainable Environment, and IDS 211: Eating Through American History.

The problems mentioned above are hardly unique to NC State’s general education program. Most universities in the country have adopted a similar smorgasbord-style general curriculum; State’s current program conforms to guidelines set by the UNC system and bears considerable resemblance to the program at UNC-Chapel Hill. NC State’s general education program, as well as those of the other schools in the UNC system, could be so much better than it is, but that will require a giant reversal in direction.

(Editor’s note: The Pope Center’s report on General Education at NC State can be accessed here.)