A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who opined that we’re missing entire categories of what should count as general education. For example, how many homeowners actually understand what goes on behind an electrical outlet? How many adults could repair a clogged drain if they had to? How many know how to change their own oil? (To be fair, electrification may render that last one moot over time.) Not knowing those things can leave people at the mercy of those who do.
I was torn between granting the truth of the examples and wondering if they’d make more sense in high school. To the extent that they’re about being an adult in this society, high school reaches far more people than college does. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that my colleague’s position gained traction. What would need to happen?
The short answer is that it depends on whether you’re talking about institutions that mostly send students or institutions that mostly receive them.
Community colleges and other access institutions that tend to send students on to other places can’t get terribly idiosyncratic in their gen eds without imperiling credit transfer. That’s especially true in target-rich environments, where students don’t all transfer to the same place.
I thought of that in reading what was otherwise an encouraging piece in the Chronicle about senior-level institutions trying new and relatively innovative things in general education. Each school had grown tired of students using phrases like “get the gen eds out of the way,” so they tried to revitalize them in various ways. On one level, it’s overdue and welcome. But the article doesn’t address transfer at all, and without addressing transfer, innovations at senior institutions could make transfer from two-year colleges much bumpier.
In arguing for transfers of credit, the usual burden is to show sufficient similarity between the course a student took and the course for which the credit is being asked. That’s usually easiest in the introductory courses to popular majors: Intro to Business, say, or Intro to Sociology. It’s harder in more specialized courses, by definition.
Of course, it’s possible to imitate any given class. But when students from a given community college transfer regularly to a dozen different places, and those places have each gone idiosyncratic, whose curriculum do you mirror? There’s no winning that one, at least as the game is currently played.
If we really want to open up innovation, we need to change the rules of the game. The easiest way is probably to move away from course-by-course matching to some sort of higher-level skills mapping, either by discipline or in a bloc. If someone out there has seen an even better way, I’d be happy to hear about it. The distribution model of gen ed survives now not because anybody loves it, but because it splits the many differences among camps and offends relatively few. It’s a compromise that elicits the enthusiasm of a compromise. Something more daring offers greater appeal, but possibly at the cost of greater exclusivity.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen models that manage to be both innovative and inclusive at the same time?