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From General Education to Civic Preparation: The Public Purpose of the Liberal Arts and Sciences

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Most college students in the United States encounter the liberal arts through what is usually called "general education" or "the core curriculum" on university campuses nationwide. "GenEd" consists of a set of requirements designed to assure that students get exposure to what the faculty consider to be the essential breadth of a college education. Some general education programs are undisguised, and require a course in each of the major disciplines or discipline clusters. Other programs are less overt, and attempt to package the requirement more creatively, such as bundling disciplinary courses into "modes of thought" -- the scientific mode, the humanist mode, and so forth. Still other approaches reflect academic trends, and employ terms like "interdisciplinary approaches" and "integrated studies." GenEd requirements have also added specific coursework in contemporary faculty and administrative concerns, and so we see compulsory classes in diversity, multiculturalism, or gender studies, along with familiar courses in social science and English composition. In all cases, "general education" is a reflection of faculty interests, and is centered on what faculty believe needs to be taught, and not necessarily on what (or why) these matters need to be known outside the academy.

The very concept of a liberal arts core curriculum is emblematic of a level of academic insularity which, in the age of open access, seems untenable. Gone is the era when students entered the cloistered world of the university and conformed to its peculiar culture and concerns. MOOCs have made the mysteries of syllabi and coursework available to casual Internet browsing, and citizens may now drop in and out of college courses via Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. Typically, by whatever name it is presented, the general education or liberal arts requirement in some fashion reflects the academic universe as it is currently known to the faculty. Some even claim as its purpose to teach students to become scholars. To outsiders, however, it looks like territorial self-interest on the part of educators, out of touch with the "real world" of employment and workforce needs, where thinking like a scholar may not be the most productive mindset.

Just as faculty have moved their pedagogy from models of teaching to models of learning, perhaps we need now to re-conceptualize our sense of what students need to know towards a sense of why they need to know it. It's a question of emphasis. A liberal education, to the faculty, represents a breadth of knowledge with which any college educated person ought to be familiar. But most core curriculum requirements take that worthy objective and distance it from utility it by framing it from the perspective of purely academic, disciplinary knowledge - placing it, in other words, in a faculty context, when it clearly has a wider relevance.

Let's return to the purpose of the enterprise. There are some things that we think everyone should know. OK, but why? Why do we think there is such a thing as what everyone should know? It can't be because we think that everyone should know what the faculty know -- the absurdity of that rationale is self-evident. Faculty are experts and by definition experts know what others don't. Is it because we think everyone should know how a university is structured? Why? When someone goes to the hospital, that person wants to emerge healthy, and becoming knowledgeable about how the hospital works is not necessary to that goal. So why should all students have a "general" exposure to the curriculum, or a sampling of disciplines?

The real reason why there are things that everyone needs to know is that the United States of America is a democracy, and a democracy is a form of government that requires extensive, informed citizen participation. Some things are obvious. We don't need citizens participating in the American democracy who don't know how this particular democracy works. Because citizens are bombarded by so much information, they probably should know how to sort and categorize sources of knowledge. And because much of this information is statistical, some knowledge of math-based arguments is a good idea. Oh, and human beings do tend to think that whatever is happening to them now has never happened to anyone ever before, so a knowledge of history, local as well as national and global, would make sense. And, well, science and technology would seem to be a no-brainer, if a citizen is to be affected by anything from the weather to issues having to do with health and biology. You get the idea.

Back to the hospital example. When you visit the doctor with an ailment, the conversation centers on your needs, your program of health and well-being. The doctor does not require you to know what she knows, or why she knows it, only what you need to know to get better. In place of the professional self-reference that characterizes "general education," then, and in place of the faculty-centered sense of liberal education, I propose that we think of these core knowledge programs as "civic preparation": What do we think citizens in a democracy need to know? What do they need to know how to do, and know how to find? Such a program would challenge each discipline to prepare coursework that answers the question, "why should a citizen in a democracy need to know this?"

At its essence, this proposal asks us to link the academy to the democracy through the curriculum. The overriding pedagogical principle would be to answer the "so what?" question. To the biology department, "so what about biology does one need to know to get better at being a citizen?" -- same question to mathematics and sociology and history and environmental studies, English, and the rest. As the start of a general education pedagogy, every liberal arts and science discipline and every course offered as a requirement would answer the "so what?" question.

In the modern academy, disciplinary standards are not left to idiosyncrasy but must conform to national protocols through professional organizations and accrediting agencies. It would stand to reason, then, that we would have national "so what?" standards in every area of civic preparation. Such standards would insure that in required courses student-citizens would get less disciplinary history (which should be reserved for majors) and more social and political context for their required subject matter. Coursework might include real-world examples, service projects, engagement in community causes and concerns, projects off-campus that would benefit by the application of expertise, by students practicing to become fully engaged citizens in a democracy. If we replaced "general education" nationally with "civic preparation" we would have a program that is no longer about the world of the university curriculum but a manifestation of the function of the university to support democracy in the United States.

Nationally, the general education requirement is an underutilized resource. It is considered an internal function of the curriculum, a series of "gateway" classes to upper-division coursework in the majors. To many students, these courses are simple hoops to jump through before getting to whatever they came to college to get. Historically, such requirements were added to the curriculum to keep students from over-specializing, especially for students in pre-professional fields like business. It may be wise to reframe the notion of "breadth" of academic knowledge to one where we see the practical applicability of academic learning to democracy. That way, students will come to associate a college education with career preparation, to be sure, but also with preparation for informed citizenship, and for lives of democratic engagement.

So what? So that the true potential represented by our nation's colleges and universities may be deployed for the progress of our democracy, to help us all be better at democratic engagement.