Why Gen Ed Reform?

The college curriculum looked quite different a couple generations ago. When my mother attended the University of Redlands in the early 60s, the standard practice was for all students to take shared core-curriculum classes before they move on to their majors (pathways?). This approach to higher education created an institutional sense of community founded on a shared learning experience. Many small liberal arts colleges continue the tradition of community building through campus wide shared core-curriculum. There were real problems with the core-curriculum of my mother’s generation. It was usually built around “Western Civ” and a canon of works by dead white males. General education at this time was culturally myopic and ethnocentric. So, we had good reasons for doing away with the canon and the traditional “Western Civ” approach.

At public colleges like our own, what has emerged in the wake of the core-curriculum has been a sharp paring back of required courses and the replacement of a core-curriculum with what we now know as the infusion model. On this model, what it means to get an education at a particular institution is defined by a set of learning outcomes that are to be taught across the curriculum. No longer would the defining features of a college as a community of scholars and students be the purview of a couple of disciplines who had authority over a core-curriculum. Rather, ideally, the infusion model would invite continual collaboration across a diverse community of educators, negotiating amongst themselves to define what an education at their school means.

I participated in some of this at Bellevue College some twenty years ago when we routinely devoted entire college issues days to articulating our 18 Gen Ed outcomes. There were working groups that outlined the content of these Gen Ed outcomes in significant detail. We haggled at length over definitions, what specific points to include and what to leave out. Over the years, most of this work got lost. A thorough search of our online archives leaves a full third of our 18 outcomes lacking even one sentence definitions. In terms of what we communicate to students, our legacy Gen Ed program is represented by one page in the course catalog where we give a nice statement from the AAC&U about what it means to get a liberal arts education and then simply list the 18 Gen Ed outcomes by name. Students hear nothing about the 18 in their classes. They have no idea which of their classes claim to teach which of these 18 outcomes. Instructors are often not aware of the outcomes claimed by the courses they teach.

In the place of continual campus-wide collaboration that builds a community of learners around a clearly defined set of General Education outcomes, we have lapsed into departmental silos where, solely for the purposes of assessment, as required by accreditation, we claim a few of the 18 that seem somewhat related to what we teach in our disciplinary silos, interpret these in ways that suit our standing curriculum, and fill out the forms we are told are necessary to keep accreditation happy.

As it turns out, accreditation is not happy. The recommendations continue. On FACT (the Faculty Assessment Coordinating Team), where I have served for the better part of a decade, we diligently implemented one fix after another in response to different recommendations, trying the patience of our colleagues who had to keep relearning what is expected of us in doing assessment. Having doggedly done the best we can to get the old machine to run, it’s become clear that this is just not going to happen. The fundamental problem is that we cannot assess what we don’t understand. And at this point, we lack any meaningful shared understanding of our 18 General Education outcomes. We can’t learn from our past performance if we can’t meaningfully assess it. This is where our legacy program of Gen Ed gets stuck. This is where accreditation has called us out.

It is understandable, given this history, that many of us have lost sight of the point of an institution-based program of General Education. Which makes this an ideal time to refresh our perspectives and consider anew the value we can realize for our students through our program of General Education. We can build community among our diverse learners through a shared educational experience. We can foster in our students the skills and qualities required to participate in a free and open society. We can help our students better navigate the rapidly changing world they are entering with robust transparent instruction in things like communication, cultural diversity, critical thinking and sustainability. We can better equip students with the basic skills and abilities that are valued by employers. We can build a distinctive brand for the college by clearly articulating what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. The degree to which we realize some or all of these goals depends on us and our willingness to thoughtfully and collaboratively engage in building a meaningful, transparent, assessable program of General Education.

We don’t have to realize all of this all at once. For now, it will be enough if we get started with a Gen Ed framework that allows us to learn from our mistakes and adapt accordingly.

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