Higher education serves many purposes. One purpose dominates, however: to students, their parents, future employers, government officials, and many academic administrators, higher education is all about preparing students for the professional workforce. Roughly 60 percent of the courses a student takes are in his or her major field of study, in which the student hopes to be eventually employed.
Other requirements, such as general education programs, are considered to be of lesser importance. In many cases, they are designed solely to support the primary goal of training professionals, providing generalized skills that can be translated to many professions. Or they are treated dismissively and are so unfocused as to be little more than academic “taste-testing,” a leisurely stroll through a series of courses chosen to satisfy idle curiosities or because they require little study time.
Yet treating general education programs as secondary constitutes a great loss of opportunity, as well-designed programs have the potential to help students become better citizens, deeper thinkers, and more moral people. On the other hand, general education programs focused on providing students with general skills can even fail at their main goal by not considering how students actually learn and which types of knowledge are best to improve reasoning prowess.
In this report, Shannon Watkins goes where most academic administrators and policymakers in charge of general education programs are too timid, too biased, or too unaware to tread. She explores actual learning processes at a primary level and shows why a tightly crafted general education that deliberately connects various types of knowledge and learning is vastly superior to one that allows students wide latitude to choose among unconnected courses that may appear to be interesting at the time but offer little long-term insight. And is also preferable to one that attempts to teach skills without bothering with the content involved.