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May 18, 2009 [feather]
From cafeteria to coffee shop?

The AACU is reporting that colleges and universities are "moving away en masse from general education focused on distribution requirements" (these are the words of AACU president Carol Geary Schneider). The AACU has for some years deplored higher ed's over-reliance on broad distribution requirements as a sort of intellectually shallow, unfocussed, and ultimately incoherent "cafeteria" approach to general education. In this, it echoes groups such as ACTA and the NAS, which have been deploring that very thing, in that very language, for well over a decade. Now, in a report issued last week, the AACU is delivering what looks to be good news.

In a survey of member institutions at a wide range of colleges and universities, the AACU found that schools are revisiting and revising the outworn distribution requirement model; general education is now increasingly being shaped in terms of things like first-year seminars, interdisciplinary work, and learning outcomes. From the executive summary:

Only 15 percent of colleges and universities are now using a cafeteria-style general education program alone. More than two-thirds of colleges and universities use a model that combines course choice with other integrative features like learning communities or thematic required courses.

For example:

--41 percent of institutions report incorporating common intellectual experiences;

--36 percent use thematic required courses;

--33 percent now have upper-level general education requirements; and

--24 percent use learning communities in which a group of students take the same set of courses linked to a common theme.


"One hundred years ago, Harvard introduced the concepts of 'distribution' and 'concentration' to organize the undergraduate curriculum," said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. "In 2009, this new study shows clearly that a decisive majority of colleges and universities see this model as inadequate for today’s students and today's world. Most campuses still use the concept of 'breadth'--requiring students to take courses in different fields to guide them beyond their comfort zones. But only a tiny fraction of institutions now rely on this model alone to ensure that students get the outcomes they need from a college education. Many colleges are now emphasizing interdisciplinary global studies, learning communities or topically linked courses taken together by a small cohort of students, thematic courses on big questions like sustainability or the global AIDS pandemic, and advanced-level integrative requirements. These new practices prepare students for a far more complex world and far more competitive global economy."

Many institutions surveyed are placing more emphasis on practices that educational research has shown are particularly effective. Seventy-eight percent are placing more emphasis on undergraduate research; 73 percent are placing more emphasis on first-year experiences; and 52 percent report placing more emphasis on learning communities.

"We've known for many years that common intellectual experiences such as students taking the same courses together as part of a core curriculum or a well-designed learning community can have a profound effect on a host of important learning outcomes," said George D. Kuh, chancellor's professor of higher education at Indiana University and founding director of the National Survey of Student Engagement. "It is most encouraging that many colleges are now incorporating some of these engaging, integrative practices in their general education programs."

It sounds so good! But two things jump out.

One is that there are limits to any survey that relies totally on institutions' own self-reporting. Thirty percent of schools reported that they were incorporating core curricula into their gen ed model. But what does that really mean?

The case of SUNY shows us how vague and insubstantial a term such as "core curriculum" can be. In 2000, the SUNY trustees voted to impose a core curriculum across the state system. The idea was to get rid of the baggy, spotty, incoherent gen ed requirements then in place at most SUNY campuses and to create the basis for each campus to define and implement a meaningful, substantive core curriculum that would ensure that students graduated with proper grounding in key skills and content areas. Since then, the many SUNY campuses have been implementing what looks on paper to be a very strongly framed, coherent educational core. But that core is not all it's cracked up to be when you look at it from one campus to the next. At Fredonia, for example, the core curriculum is working as a Trojan horse for retaining the cafeteria-style system by other means. Students can fulfill their American History requirement, for example, with "Holidays and American Culture," "American Indian Literature," and "Environmental Literature." All, I am sure, are interesting and worthy courses. But they are niche courses, highly specialized and focussed. Students will no doubt learn much in all of them--but none of them offers (or even pretends to offer) a solid grounding in American history. Fredonia also has a Western Civ requirement. But students can fulfill it with "Dance History," "Women Writers," and "Marxist Thought." Again, all worthy and interesting; again, not exactly courses that realize the ostensible aim of the requirement. These are examples of the cafeteria-style distribution model reconstituted within a core curriculum.

The second point I want to make about the AACU report is that there could well be a lot of old wine in new bottles going on here. Shifting around the experiential character of general education--so that there are smaller courses on offer, thematically-linked clusters of courses, diversity courses, service learning courses, undergraduate research opportunities, and so on--doesn't necessarily address the criticisms that are legitimately raised about cafeteria-style distribution requirements, in which students can choose from long, almost overwhelmingly diverse lists of courses to fulfill their arts and humanities requirements, their social science requirements, and so on. Those criticisms arise from a sense that students educated under that system don't have enough guidance, have too much choice, and are encouraged to choose their way into spotty, diffuse, disconnected, and ultimately incoherent educational patterns.

Making courses smaller and more focussed reduces the kinds of alienation that students can experience in huge, impersonal intro lecture courses (though I must say I think those courses can be great, and they have their place). So it might be more fun, and nurturing, and even intellectually rewarding to study in seminars and learning communities and what not. But that's a *very* far cry from a school saying, "Hey! Our general ed requirements are ridiculouslessly overexpansive! Let's all agree that every student should take a year of US history, two years of foreign language, an econ survey course, a really serious year of writing, math through pre-calculus, and enough science that they graduate with a sense of the scientific method, of the history of scientific thought (including the debates involved), and of the deciding scientific debates today (we live in a world where you need to know what stem cell research is and how it works, for example; most of don't).

At least as the AACU reports it, gen ed reform is centered more on changing the affective dimensions of undergraduate study than the substantive ones. Gen ed feels different if you can ditch the 500-person lecture course on Psych 1 and take a freshman seminar on a cool topic with a sharp, engaged professor who knows your name; such a course might even be a better course, and result in better learning outcomes for the students. But this begs the question of whether the problems of the "cafeteria" are really being addressed. One wonders whether the cafeteria model of endless, impersonal, ultimately mediocre choice is just being replaced by a "coffee shop" model in which more limited choice does not produce more focussed study, but instead results in a boutique mentality where specialized material and personal attention become the indices of quality.

That's just me throwing out a hypothetical on a Monday morning upon which I am exceptionally groggy. Don't read it as my ideal recipe for core education, but rather please see it as my attempt to draw a contrast between the vocabulary the AACU is using and the vocabulary that it might make more sense to use when thinking through the matter of whether colleges and universities are truly beginning to address the problem of general ed reform.

UPDATE: More at ACTA Online.

posted on May 18, 2009 8:11 AM

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Is this really an either/or situation? I actually think it's possible to teach students a broad topic through a specific focus; in fact, I think one reason students do not retain much from, say, high school history is because there is no unifying focus or narrative or theme.

For example, consider the course on "Marxist Thought" as a Western Civ option. If taught well -- and universities can supply professors with curriculum guides that must be followed and learning goals that must be met -- students could learn a great deal about modern Europe. If taught well, students would learn about the roots of Marxist thought and various experiments in communal societies. They might cover the history of utopian thought, from Plato to Cambodia. They could explore the shifts in European society from feudalism through to modern industrial capitalism.

Of course, such a class could be terrible and narrow, with the obligatory reading of the opening chapters of *Capital*, the *Manifesto*, and then a lot of pomo post-marxian theory. But the wide angle survey course can be no less dreadful, losing by way of bagginess what other courses lose by way of narrowness.

In my own experience, it's often the classes and books that synthesize a wide range of material from a precise perspective that have helped me actually to understand a topic.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at May 18, 2009 5:00 PM

"These new practices prepare students for a far more complex world and far more competitive global economy"...really? Are the problems we face really more complex than those faced by the generation that had to deal with depression and the rise of Fascism in parallel with an aggressive Marxism?

The assumption that our problems are oh, so much harder than any ever faced before sounds to meexactly like the kind of temporal bigotry that a good education should be aiming to correct, not to further reinforce.

Several years ago, Erin, you quoted A S Byatt:

"Books I have read that were written at a moment of social-political crisis tend to be incomprehensible 20 years later. Books that are written about some problem of 20 or 50 or 100 years ago are written with understanding and somehow also illuminate the present and the future."

Maybe perspective is more valuable than trendiness.

Posted by: david foster at May 19, 2009 7:09 AM

David: "Are the problems we face really more complex than those faced by the generation that had to deal with depression and the rise of Fascism in parallel with an aggressive Marxism?" That's an interesting question, but let's not confuse the scale of the problem with its complexity. I'm inclined to think that problems these days *are* more complex, though not necessarily more serious. I'm struck by the sheer *technical* complexity of many of our contemporary problems—the financial services industry and global warming foremost among them, though one could also include stem cell research, health care, etc. This is not to say, of course, that perspective isn't valuable...

Erin: One person's "cafeteria" is another's "marketplace of ideas." I have to admit that I find analogies such as "cafeteria," "coffee shop," "boutique," and (yes) "market place" to be a little grating. It seems to me that they obscure real pedagogical questions, such as the trade-off between general knowledge, on the one hand, and the benefits that students get from studying topics in-depth with expert faculty, on the other. I am similarly annoyed, by the way, when colleagues discuss core curriculum proposals as "one size fits all" or "remedial."

Your own sample proposal is interesting: American History +Foreign Language +Econ +Writing +Math +Science Survey. It's perfectly reasonable, but why American as opposed to European History, econ as opposed to a broader introduction to the social sciences (including statistical reasoning)? Where is computer science? And the arts? Does "Foreign Language" alone provide an adequate global perspective? No curriculum, of course, can do everything, and each institution will come up with its own set of priorities. But what is so wrong with an institution providing reasonable choices among these options? Why the constant push for mandating a specific sequence of courses? There's something satisfying about neat formulations of "what an educated person should know," just as there is something satisfying about definitively declaring the "Truth" about anything, but it doesn't necessarily serve our students.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at May 19, 2009 10:15 AM

Peter...but earlier generations also faced technological issues which seemed to them highly complex. In the early 1950s, for example, nuclear fission and fusion were on the table, as were the early computers--which were considered to be extremely esoteric--and factory automation, the latter two of which were mystified under the name "cybernetics."

C P Snow, better known for "The Two Cultures," also wrote "Science and Government" in which he asserted that technology had become so complex and so dominant that most of the important decisions of a society would need to be made by experts, often in secret. (Snow drew on his own experience with the pre-WWII feud between Tizard and Lindemann on the value of radar versus alternative air defense technologies, and the mid-WWII feud between the same men re the value or lack therof of strategic bombing targetted at city destruction)

Some of the greatest complexities that arise, I submit, are due not soley or even primarily to the complexity of the technology but rather to its interaction with the culture. The industrial revolution, for example, raised complex issues because it challenged age-old assumptions about wealth, poverty, and the nature of work. Antibiotics greatly changed the life experience of almost everybody: no longer would it be common to see children die in infancy. Reliable contracptive had an almost equally powerful impact.

Posted by: david foster at May 19, 2009 3:33 PM