Reimagining General Education at Bellevue College

General Education refers to the program of study aimed at instilling the knowledge, skills and abilities that will benefit students as persons, regardless of their career skills. Much of what we teach as General Education will also benefit students substantially in their professional endeavors. Employers value things like critical thinking and communication skills. But General Education is where we get to focus on helping our students become life-long learners, contribute to their communities and lead flourishing lives. Our program of General Education embodies what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. As a community of educators, we have a good deal of latitude in deciding just what an education at Bellevue College means and how we will deliver on that promise.

What would a functional program of General Education look like? Of course, we do not have an administrative unit, like a department of General Education. This is not what the infusion model for General Education calls for. On the infusion model, our Gen Ed outcomes are taught across campus in a variety of programs. The infusion model is intended as an alternative means to accomplishing what we might instead do with a core curriculum taught in required courses. Adopting an infusion model for General Education still presupposes that there is a curriculum that we are teaching across our various offerings in various programs. In order to harness the diverse perspectives and strengths of our assorted disciplines, the program of study we designate as General Education might be understood in the broadest of terms. There remains much to be understood about just what an education at Bellevue College should mean and we lack a tradition of collaboration around articulating what that is or how we can most effectively teach it across our programs and disciplines.

We do have 18 Gen Ed outcomes, categorized into three major areas as summarized below:

Communication Connections Creative and Critical Thinking 
Reading  Writing  Listening  Visual  Computer Literacy Self-Assessment/Life Goals  Group Processes  Ethics  Global Citizenship  Historical and Intellectual Perspectives  Cultural Diversity  Natural Systems (Science and the Natural World)  Technology and Society   Critical Thinking/Problem Solving  Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning  Research /Information Literacy  Scientific Inquiry (Nature of Science)  Aesthetic Awareness 
BC’s current Gen ed Outcomes

At the insistence of accreditation, we have developed sophisticated tools for assessing these Gen Ed outcomes including a broad assortment of rubrics, Canvas imbedded reporting mechanisms and sophisticated data analytics. But the data yielded is not informative, in good part because we lack a shared understanding of just what we are trying to measure.

We can better understand the gaps in our practice if we think about what a functional program of General Education would involve. For starters, those responsible for teaching our Gen Eds would have some documented expertise in the Gen Ed areas they teach, either through academic study or professional development. This would assure a shared understanding of a Gen Ed area among the faculty who teach it. Next, we might hope for some consultation and collaboration among the faculty responsible for instruction in a Gen Ed area. Faculty who teach Cultural Diversity, for instance, would regularly consult and collaborate with each other, sharing and developing curriculum and pedagogical strategies. A Gen Ed outcome that is taught across several disciplines might then be taught in a way that is mutually informed, complementary, and reinforcing. Then, faculty sharing a Gen Ed area would work together on formulating methods of measuring student learning where standards are reasonably normed and instructors can have some shared notion of how we are all measuring the same thing.

At this point we’ve identified three functional elements that constitute a model for a program of General Education:

  1. Faculty preparation for teaching in a Gen Ed area.
  2. Collaboration among faculty in sharing curriculum and teaching strategies.
  3. Coordinating and norming assessment of student learning.

Not all of our General Education outcomes are fully infused at Bellevue College. Some, like Writing and Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning are taught in a fairly unified way in specific disciplines thanks to the degree requirements imposed by the Direct Transfer Agreement which require that all students graduating with an associate degree take two quarters of college level Composition and one quarter of college level math or logic. Reading and Writing is covered by the English department and Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning is largely covered by Math (fewer than 100 students a year meet this requirement by taking logic in the philosophy department). In the case of these Gen Ed outcomes, instructor preparation in the outcome area is assured by the respective departments. Collaboration among faculty in developing curriculum, sharing teaching strategies and norming the assessment of student learning is supported at the department level as well.

Instruction in our non-infused Gen Ed outcomes can provide us with a functional model for developing a program of General Education for our infused outcomes. As things stand, the third element of this model exists in our practice of Gen Ed outcomes assessment. We are largely missing the first two.

As we think about how to develop a functioning model of General Education at Bellevue College, we may want to revisit the expansive list of 18 General Education outcomes. There are developed curricula for some of these, notably Scientific Inquiry, Research/Information Literacy, Cultural Diversity and Critical Thinking. It’s not clear the same can be said for things like Self-Assessment/Life Goals or Group Processes. Some of our Gen Ed outcomes are open ended in ways that don’t appear to support anything like a shared curriculum. Others, while definable and valuable, are not things we are ever likely to assure are taught generally to all of our students. A more deliberate and discerning revision of what an education at Bellevue College should mean may be called for. Perhaps our Gen Ed outcomes should be limited, developed and articulated in such a way that any faculty member could hope to explain in some detail just what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. In the absence of this, I’m not sure we really know what we are doing beyond job training. So long as we don’t really know what we are doing in the realm of General Education, odds are we won’t be doing it well.

Meaning in Life and the Point of Getting and Education

Imagine a world devoid of conscious experience. Not even at the level of mollusks or moths. This is a world where nothing matters. Nothing has meaning or value. Now let’s admit some mollusks and moths. And let’s suppose that getting meal and avoiding toxins matters to mollusks and moths. Doing so presumes some degree of conscious experience. Unconscious mollusks might seek food or avoid toxins, but for this to matter to the mollusk, there must be some being that is having some experience. So, this will be my starting point, that things mattering, having value, or meaning something depends on things mattering, having value, or meaning something to some conscious being. This a central idea in Irving Singer’s work on meaning in life.

Note, we are not talking about the meaning of life. Talk of the meaning of life suggests that meaning is something that life has, as opposed to being something that is realized in living. Religiously inspired views of the meaning of life often take life to have some meaning or purpose attached to it. But even here, the meaning or purpose of a person’s life comes from things mattering to another conscious being, a personal God. We’d be hard pressed to fathom what sort of meaning or significance we might glean from a God that was not personal, not a conscious, self-aware being like us.

So, we’ll start from the idea that the seat of value is conscious experience. Meaning, value and purpose flow from conscious experience. These needn’t be sought outside. I won’t offer a detailed defense of this idea, though I think we’ve already motivated it. We can now entertain a more contentious elaboration on this thesis that takes the degree to which something matters to be a function of the degree or kind of conscious experience associated with it. We should worry that this idea is speciesist or elitist in some way. Who am I to say that my career matters more to me than a mollusk’s next meal matters to the mollusk? In both cases, the scale of mattering is topped out. The stakes are existential. Well, only existential regarding a certain professional identity in the case of my career.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea that the fate of my career matters no more than the starvation of a mollusk. But if pressed to explain why the fate of my career matters more, there are a few things I can say. My conscious experience is more sophisticated than the mollusk’s in a number of ways. I have self-awareness, a capacity for practical reason, a memory. The mollusk has sensory experience, but none of these other things (we’ll suppose). And even in the realm of sensory experience, mine is richer and more varied. So, we can account for the intuitive idea that how and how much things matter varies with the kind of conscious experience associated with them. We seem to take this much for granted whenever we obliterate the conscious experience of a mollusk for an oyster appetizer.

To whatever degree I can enrich someone’s conscious experience, my own or another’s, I’m adding value to the world. As Singer puts it, the key feature of caring, of loving a conscious being, is the bestowal of value on that being. It’s a good thing that we care about each other. We make those we love matter more when we enrich their conscious experience. This is just what we should expect when we take conscious experience to be the seat of value. There is value in my experience and there is value in the ways I can enhance the experience of others.

The point of this little meditation on what matters and why is to provide a corrective to a pervasive tendency to evaluate our lives in practical terms. So much of our sense of self-worth is tied to what we are good for, what we achieve, how we impact or impress others. As highly social beings, this is to be expected. It matters to me how I impact others, how I’m seen by others, what I am good for in the lives of others and what matters for them. Our social nature embeds us in a pervasive economy of usefulness. And this is largely to the good. We show that we care about others and our communities by making ourselves, in one way or another, useful to them, often and appropriately with the hope that this will be reciprocated in ways that enrich our own conscious experience. Usefulness is not to be scoffed at.

But then we should be wary of the tendency to instrumentalize everything. We are at risk of focusing on the practical, the useful, to the point where we reflexively ask how something is useful to the exclusion of contemplating what things are ultimately useful for. When we lose sight of value worth pursuing for its own sake, not merely as a means to some further value, all of our valuing become unmoored. Down this path, nihilism threatens. Educators often encounter this kind of listlessness in the student who asks, “Why should I care about this? What is it good for?” in a demanding rather than inquisitive tone. We’d better have good answers.

A blunt answer to the “Why should I care?” demand is simply, “Because then you’ll care about something!” This is just a direct way of saying what we’ve already said a little more diplomatically, that caring about things makes them matter. Our lives become meaningful when we care about things.

Educators will have a tough row to hoe if we set out directly to make our students care about things. Our path has traditionally been a little less direct, but more effective because of it. We help students get acquainted with things worthy of caring about. Things don’t matter in a vacuum. History and philosophy aren’t magically endowed with value by the universe at large. But these are things that have sustained the interest of many people for a long time. They are apt for being valued beyond their usefulness because they speak to our condition as conscious beings that matter.

Things mattering to people presupposes some conscious awareness and understanding of them. I’m not in a position to care about the suffering of marginalized people unless I’ve had some introduction to their circumstances and experience. My understanding may never be complete, but that’s not necessary for taking an interest and being motivated to seek justice out of concern.

Similarly, I can’t care about art and culture from a position of complete ignorance about these things. Getting acquainted with art and culture is a first step towards appreciating it. And let’s understand “appreciating” literally. We make art matter, we bestow value on it, through taking an interest and valuing it. At the same time, our appreciation of art and culture constitutes value and meaning in our own lives. There is nothing zero-sum about meaning, caring, and appreciating.

Introducing students to things worth caring about is how we as educators build meaning and purpose in our student’s lives. The value of education here is not instrumental. Though we seldom talk this way anymore, when we speak of education as worth pursuing for its own sake, I think this is what we are getting at. Education can make our lives more interesting, more meaningful, ultimately more purposeful. When we introduce students to things that are interesting, beautiful, speak to our own humanity or the humanity of others, we grant them an opportunity to take an interest, join the broader human community that makes these things matter, and, if things go well, care about something.