Over the past few days I’ve been writing about what the free economy might mean for higher education in the United States. My main proposal is that we ought to start giving away the required courses in the general education curriculum. Here at George Mason that would mean 40 credits, or one-third of the credits required to graduate.
How would we do that?
The first objection that might be raised concerns teaching and learning. Right now, today, it wouldn’t be possible to offer the entire set of required courses on our campus for free. But that’s assuming that courses completed is a reasonable measurement of learning.
What I’m suggesting here is that we have to throw out our assumptions about what “teaching and learning” mean in the context of the general education curriculum. Right now, we assume that what happens is that students enroll in something we call courses where faculty members impart knowledge to them in various ways. And we further assume that if a student successfully completes the 40 hours we require that he or she will know the things (or be able to do the things) our general education curriculum is set up to impart.
At George Mason, here are the goals of the general education curriculum:
1. To ensure that all undergraduates develop skills in information gathering, written and oral communication, and analytical and quantitative reasoning;
2. To expose students to the development of knowledge by emphasizing major domains of thought and methods of inquiry;
3. To enable students to attain a breadth of knowledge that supports their specializations and contributes to their education in both personal and professional ways;
4. To encourage students to make important connections across boundaries (for example: among disciplines; between the university and the external world; between the United States and other countries).
I think these are all worthy goals, don’t get me wrong. Where I beg to differ with the current system is that I don’t think that these goals have to be accomplished with courses.
If instead of thinking about the university as a place where faculty members teach and students take courses, what if, instead, we thought of the university as a place that fosters learning. If we let learning be our standard, rather than courses completed, then I think we can liberate ourselves from the feeling that if we don’t teach our students X, they won’t be able to do Y when they leave our campus for the “real” world after graduation.
And, I would further suggest that this sort of approach might just be one cure for something colleagues complain about a lot–the instrumental approach that so many students take when it comes to their education. But really, who can blame them? When so much emphasis is placed on completing courses with a certain grade point average, the goal becomes completing courses, not learning things worth knowing.
So, I think our approach needs to change and change radically. Rather than teaching courses in the general education curriculum, we need to go beyond those lofty statements I listed above and come up with some real, honest benchmarks–benchmarks that allow us to say to our students, okay, you now know enough and have enough of the necessary skills to progress on to upper division courses here at our university.
How will our students do that? Stay tuned…
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