Tag Archives: undergraduate education

Eat Your Brussels Sprouts!

When I was a child, I knew that if a Brussels sprout passed my lips, one of two things would happen — I’d vomit, or I’d die. Unfortunately for me, my mother loved Brussels sprouts and so they showed up on my dinner plate far, far too often. Because she had a “sit at your place until you clean your plate” rule, and our cats wouldn’t eat vegetables IĀ  dropped on the floor, I spent many nights sitting at that damned dinner table until it was time to go to bed.

Spinach? I hated it, but could force it down. Collards? They were worse, but I could force them down too. Limas? Peas? Loved them! But Brussels sprouts was where I drew the line.

Ultimately my mother gave up and just made me peas on the nights she cooked Brussels sprouts for herself and my father (who secretly loathed peas). Sometime in my twenties I had to eat a Brussels sprout and lo and behold, it was delicious. Who knew? We eat them often at my house, but never once have I forced one of my children to eat them. They’ll find there way to Brussels sprouts on their own. Or not. Either way, it will be up to them.

I’m sorry to report that our approach to general education in American higher education is just like my mother’s approach to vegetables at dinner — Eat them, kid. They’re good for you! And you can’t leave the table (graduate) until you DO eat them. Why? Because I’m the Dad and I said so, that’s why.

For years I’ve been railing about the state of general education in American higher education. [See for instance, two of my personal favorites from 2008: Why the Apparatchiks Would Have Loved General Education, and Milo Minderbinder University.] In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo brings a fresh voice to the long simmering and frankly shameful debate about the truly silly ways we force our students to eat their vegetables before they graduate.

Toward the end of his essay, Selingo says, “general education is also meant to equip students with an understanding of the wider world and a sense of civic responsibility. Whether it still does that is debatable.”

I don’t think it’s debatable at all.

I think we force students to eat their vegetables because we’re the adults and we know better.

In fact, at far too many institutions of higher education here in the States, we’ve let our approach to general education ossify to the point that the thing we misleadingly call “general education” has become nothing more than an exercise in box-checking by our students who just want to graduate with the credential everyone tells them they must have to succeed in life.

Rather than cast aspersions on any other institution, I’ll cast them on my own, because George Mason University could be a poster child for the sorts of problems Selingo describes in his essay.

As evidence, let me lay out for you the requirements every student who graduates from Mason must complete (with the add on of additional requirements students in my college–Humanities and Social Sciences–must complete in addition to the already onerous requirements imposed by the university).

In what we recently renamed the “Mason Core,” every student must fulfill the following requirements with the number of credits in parentheses:

Written Communication (3) — English 100 or 101
Oral Communication (3) — Communication 100 or 101
Information Technology (3-7) — One or two courses from a list of 15
Quantitative Reasoning (3) — Math 106 or an advanced class from a list of 10
Arts (3) — One course from a list of 83
Global Understanding (3) — One course from a list of 85
Literature (3) — One course from a list of 29
Natural Science (7) — Two courses, one with a lab, from a list of 41
Social Sciences (3) — One course from a list of 35
Western or World Civilization (3) — History 100 or 125
Advanced Composition (3) — English 302 (writing in the disciplines)
Synthesis [capstone] course (3) — One course from a list of 7

So you don’t have to count up all those credits, I did it for you. That’s either 40 or 44 credits depending on the IT course you select.

Then, my college adds on an additional 18 credits to this list, meaning anyone majoring in the humanities or social sciences must complete between 58-62 credits from a list forced on them by the faculty.

Now here’s the best part. Of all of those courses we require of our students, by my count one — that’s ONE — of them actually connects to any of the others. One. As in less than two. That course is English 302, which is a writing in the disciplines course in which students learn to write in the broad categoriesĀ  they are studying in — Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, Business, Engineering, etc.

At no other time in all of those 40-62 credits do any of our required courses reach across the disciplinary boundaries to connect to other aspects of the core curriculum, unless it happens by chance (or design) in a particular course because the professor goes out of her or his way to make it happen. The capstone/synthesis courses are really just capstones within majors, not across the curriculum, so even those don’t pretend to be general education courses.

So really, here at George Mason, we don’t have a “core” that is anything more than a list of boxes that students must check.

Or, given how so many of them feel about it, Brussels sprouts they must eat.

How to Close a College

Yesterday, the board of trustees of one of the older colleges in Virginia–Sweet Briar College–announced they were closing the college at the end of this academic year, despite the fact that the college still has an endowment worth over $80 million for its student body variously reported as being between 550-700 students. This choice to end the college’s life on the college’s terms rather than the market’s terms was certainly a wrenching one and has been widely debated all across the Internet in the past 24 hours.

I fully understand the difficulties the board faced, because in 2002, I was the chair of the board of the Civic Education Project (CEP), a very successful international educational NGO operating in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. That spring, our board voted to cease operations and donate whatever cash was left in our accounts after the shut down to an NGO doing work similar to ours.

In our case, the reason for our decision to close was that our primary funder had decided that we would have to either merge with his own organization, or lose our annual grant that represented more than 65% of our funding base. I have no complaints with his decision–and it’s worth noting that over the 15 years that CEP was in operation, he was extraordinarily generous, far beyond our wildest expectations. It was, after all, his money.

Thus, as a board we were faced with three choices: merge with an organization whose values we shared, but whose operational approach we disagreed with; close; or become a grant driven organization rather than a mission driven organization. We spent six months (and much of our cash reserves) scouting the waterfront of possible options for that third way. In the end, we voted to close rather than become an organization we couldn’t be proud of.

My reading of the news coming out of and about Sweet Briar is that the college’s trustees faced similar choices, albeit in a slightly different context. As happened to the CEP board back in 2002, their options were constrained by market forces they could not control. And as we did back in 2002, they chose death with dignity over a slow death inflicted by the market.

Sweet Briar isn’t the first college to close in Virginia this decade, nor will it be the last. But in making difficult choices early rather than in extremis, the college’s board set an example for those who all too soon will face similarly constrained options.

I’m sad for the students, faculty, staff, and alumnae of the college, and for the community of Amherst which is losing an important economic engine. But I’m proud of the college’s board. They’ve made an incredibly painful decision and are, as far as I can tell, doing all the right things now that the choice has been made.