The most important part of a college education

(Editor’s note: In connection with the new report on core curriculum issued by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, we are publishing a speech given by Jay Schalin at a forum at North Carolina State University, “A Dialogue on NC State’s General Education Program,” on September 10. Schalin is the author of a Pope Center report on NC State’s curriculum.)

General education is not given the respect and attention it deserves in the great majority of US colleges and universities, North Carolina State University included. Largely because of campus politics, political correctness, and pandering to students, at most colleges it has become an academic platypus—an animal with incongruent parts.

But general education has a very special purpose; it is often the most important part of a college education. That special purpose is perhaps best defined by Cardinal John Newman’s description of a proper liberal education, to instill “a habit of mind…which lasts through life.”

There are many such habits of mind that would be desirable to teach: humility, a hunger for knowledge, and so on. Some habits can come to a person seemingly without effort, others must aggressively pursued. But because a general education program consists of only a dozen or so courses, it is necessary to focus on the most essential of these habits.

The first is the ability to reason well. As luck would have it, the key reasoning skills just happen to match the skills that can be applied to any sort of professional job.

The facts and formulas may disappear over time, but the ability to reason remains.

On a personal note, my undergraduate degree is in computer science and my graduate degree is in economics. Today, I am a writer and a policy analyst. I can’t tell a line of C++ from a line of Java, and I probably can’t create a proper econometric regression if my life depended on it. But from each of those programs I got something extremely valuable that helps me in my current job—they also would help me in many other jobs.

Computer science has lots of logic. True-false, If-then-else. Working my logic muscles back then made me a more accurate and stronger thinker today. And studying economics gave me great insight into human nature and such important dynamics of human behavior as the law of diminishing marginal returns.

An optimal general education program would include courses in both logic and economics to improve students’ ability to reason. Right now, at NC State a student can choose to take logic and economics to fulfill general education requirements, But there’s no requirement to do so and a student can easily avoid them.  Sometimes the most important things in life are not what you want, but what you need.

Another shortcoming of the program’s potential for developing the ability to reason is a minimal emphasis on laboratory science. While the program requires two science courses, only one of them is a lab course. This is counter to the best reason for making non-science majors take science courses: to give  them hands-on experience drawing conclusions from empirical data using the scientific method.

NC State does require two math courses, but it should make sure that all students are exposed to some statistics and probability that have real-life applications—standard math courses do not.

After all, we do not make most of our decisions in life based on certainties, but on probabilities. Also, the ability to detect statistical trends can help with many key decisions.

Writing is applied reasoning. Right now, State only requires one writing course—plus a vague “communication in the major” component that may or may not add much. It would be best to add a second writing course focusing on rhetoric or argumentation, as many college graduates today lack the ability to craft a proper argument.

Also extremely important is the critical reading of text. This not only helps with reasoning, but if the texts are chosen properly, they can form the basis for introducing the second essential habit of mind: an understanding of one’s relation to the world.

Teaching the understanding of one’s place in the world has two elements. The first is to get students to think more deeply by exposing them to the great common themes of human existence, such as:

What it means to be human? What is truth? What is justice? How best should we organize society? And so on.

Of course, we must remember that instilling this habit of mind is not the same as giving somebody a fixed set of opinions; rather, it means exposing students to the best thinking on such important matters. State is not doing a good job in this regard—it has several features—the Co-requirements and the Thematic tracks—that direct students toward predetermined beliefs rather than objective inquiry.

The second element of worldly knowledge is a sense of how to best live in one’s own society. For most NC State students—and a general education program is for the majority of students—that is the United States, and in a broader sense, the West. We need to learn our own culture because this is the culture we live in: the more knowledge we have of it, the more we can advance in our own lives and the better decisions we can make for the common good—that is, to perform our civic duties.

For our country is based on self-rule, and self-rule is only as good as the people participating in it. It should go without saying that making consistently wise decisions within the framework of our self-rule requires knowledge about our government, our history and our economy, and especially about the ideas that led to our founding. So the general education program should direct our attention toward these topics, not away from them as it currently does.

Instilling these habits is no light undertaking. It requires great care to ensure that the requirements address the goals of the program and support each other. This may eliminate much of students’ ability to choose their own gen ed courses. But a well-crafted general education program and a high degree of student choice cannot co-exist: consider that students submit without complaint to the expertise of their department to determine their major programs. There are some choices at the upper levels, but for the most part degree programs are fairly explicit.

The thing is, a good general education program actually requires more expertise and specificity than a major does. Most faculty members know what is needed for students to master their disciplines, the subject matter of a major is fairly confined to that subject, and the objectives are clear and direct: to give you the knowledge and skills of a beginning level practitioner in that profession.

But a general education is much more complex—it pulls in courses from a vast array of disciplines for some fairly esoteric goals. Forming proper reasoning skills is not as simple as learning a specific body of knowledge; it cannot be left up to chance decisions made by those who are still learning what is important to know.

Part of the confusion arises because General Education programs are often defined as providing “breadth of knowledge.” But educating broadly is not the same as offering a broad selection of courses; more breadth can be offered in a single survey course in literature or history than in a whole bunch of courses on very narrow topics.

Unfortunately, the typical general education program in the United States—of which State’s is one—does not focus enough on the essential knowledge and habits. And it shows: surveys reveal that students gain almost no civic knowledge during their college years, and employers everywhere complain that basic writing and reasoning skills are sorely lacking in recent graduates.

There is great room for improvement.