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CHAPIER 8 General Education and the New Curriculum Gary E. Miller Historically, concern over the undergraduate curriculum seems to coincide with times of major change or disruption in society. The times are now changing once again. What is frustrating is the nature of the change. It Is not as if a revolution has overthrown all of the old knowledge, leaving us to teach brand new subjects. It is not as If we have discovered something so new that we have to go back and rethink everything we used to hold as true. It has not been that kind of change. Instead, it seems that much of the old knowledge Is still valid, except that the context has changed. It is a difficult and frustrating problem. It does not necessarily require that we throw away everything we are used to doing, but that we revisit how we define what we do. This is one of the problems with discussing the curriculum. Tra- ditionally, we have tended to treat rather loosely some of the basic tools of our trade. We use terms such as core curriculum, distribu- tion system, liberal education, and general education as if they are interchangeable. Much of our problem with the revitalization of undergraduate education lies in our habitual use of these terms. Our success or failure in reforming undergraduate education will depend, in larger measure than we usually are willing to recognize, on our ability to revisit and redefine the basic language of the curriculum, so that our actions better reflect our rhetoric. Many people who read this volume have had the experience of working on a curriculum committee. We discuss goals and make decisions about the curriculum. Then, as we return to our depart- ments, things change. Our interpretation of the goals begins to drift from what we thought were commonly held assumptions. Some- how, what happens in the classroom in the interaction between 68
GENERAL EDUCATION AND THE NEW CURRICULUM the faculty member and the student, where the curriculum really resides does not reflect the goals we set down on paper. More disturbing, there Is no coherence among courses. Yet, each faculty member might feel confident that he or she is living up to the goals. I begin by looking at some of the terms we use and what they mean. we use some terms as if they define the curriculum, al- though they do not; Instead, they define the structure on which a curriculum can be built. Terms like core curriculum, distribution system, learning contracts, and even interdisciplinarity reflect the way in which the curriculum is organized rather than the content and goals of the curriculum. They are simply the medium of the curriculum. The caution, then, is not to confuse the medium with the message. However, our choice of medium does have something to say about the message in this case, about the assumptions we bring to the curriculum. A distribution system suggests that although we want our students to gain familiarity with a broad range of knowl- edge and perhaps some depth of knowledge in a particular area- we are not concerned with the specific knowledge that they get. A core curriculum, on the other hand, makes clear that we hold spe- cific areas of knowledge to be very important, so important that all students should share them, regardless of their personal or profes- sional interests. Interdisciplinarity- which can function in either a distribution or a core curriculum suggests that we recognize that the way in which we compartmentalize knowledge for research and organizational purposes Is not necessarily relevant for Instructional purposes. All three of these tend to assume that knowledge is the central force in the curriculum. By comparison, some structures- experiential learning and learning contracts, for example assume that the individual personal and professional Interests of the stu- dent come first. The interplay between the purpose of a curriculum and how we structure the curriculum is obvious. we should not assume that structure is independent of purpose or that any one structure is the universally appropriate one. That decision should rest on how we define the goals and our approach to the content and methods of the curriculum. General education and liberal education are two of the most common ways that we define the purpose, content, and methods of the curriculum. Just as we use terms like core curriculum and distribution Interchangeably, we have used terms like general edu- cat~on and liberal education interchangeably, even though they arise from distinctly different roots. In fact, I read one article in which the writer alternated the use of Uliberal/general education" with "general/ liberal education" in an attempt to avoid making a distinction. They are not the same, however. They reflect fundamentally different assumptions about the purpose of education, about the nature of 69
AGRICULTURE AND THE UNDERGRADUATE knowledge, and about the relationship of the learner to the curricu- lum. Because these distinctions are absolutely vital and not nec- essarily apparent- I would first like to define general education and then compare general and liberal education. General education is a curriculum movement that grew out of the philosophy of American pragmatism in the early part of the twenti- eth century. Initially, it was a response to the increasing "professionalization" of the liberal arts (which themselves had grown rapidly toward the end of the nineteenth century as a response to the fragmentation that accompanied the growth of research as a mission of the university). However, general education soon took on a meaning separate and distinct from liberal education. I define It In this way: General education is a comprehensive, self~onsciously developed and maintained program that develops in individual students the attitude of inquiry, the skills of problem solving, the individual and community values associated with a democratic society, and the knowledge needed to apply these attitudes, skills, and values so that the students may maintain the learning process over a lifetime and function as self-fulfilled individuals and as full participants in a society committed to change through democratic processes. As such, it is marked by its comprehensive scope, by its emphasis on specific and real problems and issues of immediate concern to students and society, by its concern with the needs of the future, and by the application of democratic principles in the methods and procedures of education as well as the goals of education (Miller, 1 988:2). This definition contains several key phrases that deserve closer scrutiny. First, general education Is Comprehensive." By that I do not mean that it covers the entire canon of Western civilization. Instead, general education is comprehensive in that it deals with basic contexts, methods, attitudes, values, and skills that apply in all areas of our students" lives. It is also comprehensive in that it applies to the entire learning environment. It is not limited to the first 2 years of a program; It ideally is integrated with the total curriculum, including the upper-division professional programs and those areas that we do not tend to associate directly with the cur- riculum, such as faculty development, student participation in the service function, and sponsored extracurricular activities. Second, general education is self-consciously developed and maintained. The stated purposes of the curriculum guide every aspect of the curriculum, including the selection of subject matter, the structure, and the methods and procedures. Evaluation is done continually, with an eye to improving the match among goals, methods, and outcomes. General education is concerned with the individual student. It is a student-centered curriculum. It is concerned explicitly with the 70
GENERAL EDUCATION AND THE NEW CURRICULUM development of the learner rather than with the delivery of instruc- tlon. This Is not necessarily an easy distinction to draw, but it Is a crucial one. General education is intimately concerned with democratic pro- cesses and with the needs of a democratic society. It begins with the individual and his or her relationship to society as its first orga- nizing principle. Its goal Is to enable individuals to perform their basic responsibilities as members of a democratic society. It as- sumes that society Is dynamic and that the ability of the Individual to participate in setting the direction of change is fundamental to the health of a democracy. This suggests another characteristic of general education: it Is concerned with specific, immediate Issues and with the present and future rather than with the past. In all of this, there is another characteristic that is central to a general education and that has a significant effect on how general education curricula take form. That is that the means must support the goals of the curriculum. Here, the structure and content of the curriculum and the ways in which students interact with subject matter, faculty, and their environment come together. General and Liberal Education General education shares many of its goals with modern liberal education. However, the two build on different assumptions that affect the content and methods of the curriculum. These differ- ences in basic assumptions and goals are very important if we want to ensure that the goals are realized in the classroom. General and liberal education have fundamentally different as- sumptions about the role of knowledge in education. Liberal edu- cation, building on the classical liberal arts, assumes that knowl- edge is valuable in its own right. General education, on the other hand, grows out of U.S. pragmatism. Its explicit goal is to equip students with the skills they need to control their environment. For that goal, knowledge is a tool rather than an end in itself. Traditionally, liberal education is concerned with ideas in the abstract, the preservation of universal truths, and the development of the intellect. General education is concerned with the develop- ment of the students capability for individual and social action and with the problems of the present and future. If these differences sound theoretical, they become very real in the classroom. To illustrate, look at how a typical course might be treated differently in three situations a simple distribution approach, a liberal education approach, and a general education approach. Take Introduction to Art History. In a traditional distribution curricu- lum, Introduction to Art History would be just that- an introduction to the study of art history. We would learn about the development 71
AGRICULTURE AND THE UNDERGRADUATE of various techniques and schools of art the development of per- spective, the growth of realism, the discovery of light as a tool, the evolution of abstractlonism, etc. In a liberal arts curriculum, we would be more likely to study the history of art as an expression of culture. We would study the evolution of art as religious expres- sion, the return to Classical motifs in the Renaissance, and the gradual emergence of art as an expression of the individual and of social concerns. In a general education curriculum, Introduction to Art History would focus on art as an example of how people in a particular time and place perceived their world and used art to respond to their environment; students might be asked to examine social trends that parallel changes in the style or content of painting across several periods, for instance. The same differences in goals, treatment of content, and meth- ods would apply as the different approaches were used in profes- sional education curricula. The key is the interplay among underly- ing assumptions about the purpose of the curriculum, the goals that grow out of those assumptions, the way content is selected and treated to meet those goals, and the methods and structure that are brought to bear. Why General Education? Given the choices, why choose general education? The first ques- tion Is this: Why change what we are already doing at all? The fact that people attended the conference on which this volume is based suggests that we sense the need for change. But why? Is it be- cause something in the curriculum is broken and needs to be fixed? Or is it because the Job itself has changed and the old tools are no longer right for the job? I submit that it is the latter. It is not that we have forgotten how to teach or have wandered away from the path. It is that our world has changed is still changing and with that the context for teaching and learning has shifted. AS a result, we must teach some new things, teach some old things in a new context so that they are more useful in the new environment, and find some methods and structures to make the curriculum coherent. In order to know how to adapt, we must know the direction of change in society. In a recent article entitled The Real Economy," Robert Reich suggests that direction from the perspective of an economist. He maintains that, in the new world economy In which we find ourselves, employers need several core skills. These in- clude, "the problem-solving skills required to put things together in unique ways (be they alloys, molecules, semiconductor chips, soft- ware codes, movie scripts, or pension portfolios)' . . . problem- identifying skills required to help customers understand their needs and how those needs can best be met by customized products, . . . the skills needed to link problem-solvers and problem-identifiers," what Reich calls "strategic brokers" (Reich, 1991 :37). 72
GENERAL EDUCATION AND THE NEW CURRICULUM It seems that the assumptions that underpin general education are very much in line with the direction of social change, at least as people like Reich see it. We have a match of social need and cur- riculum goals. Moreover, with the technologies that are available to us, we have at hand the educational means to realize the objective. Implications for Agricutfure-Related Curricula The first thing to remember Is that general education is not sepa- rate from professional education. Instead, it is a way of defining the mission and goals of the total curriculum. The purpose of gen- eral education is to develop the student's ability to function effec- tively in society as an individual, as a family and community mem- ber, and as a professional. The characteristics of general education that I just described should infuse the entire curriculum, so that we produce professionals who are able to see their professional work within the context of their broader community responsibilities and, more importantly, who are able to act on that vision. General educationts goals of problem solving, decision making, and values clarification and its expressed commitment to immedi- ate issues and enabling students to shape their future suggest methods well-suited to the experiential, practice-research orientation of agri- culture and natural resources-related curricula. Inquiry and experi- mentation are central methods of a general education curriculum. Some other changes in method should also be considered. Al- though traditional curricula focus on individual competitiveness and achievement, a general education curriculum might also include group problem solving a technique that more accurately reflects how we work in daily life and that develops the student's ability to be effec- tive in a variety of communities with a variety of constituencies. Beyond the professional curriculum, I believe each profession has a right to demand a relevant preparatory curriculum for stu- dents. By this, I do not mean the Shakespeare for Engineers courses taught at many institutions. However, an American history course that uses history of land use rather than political history as the connecting theme might be more relevant not only to students in colleges of agriculture but to others as well. A course in humani- ties that explores the evolution of perceptions of human interaction with the natural world could be just as effective- possibly more effective than a traditional history of philosophy or introduction to the humanities course. The common thread in these courses is the distinction between learning something and learning about some- thing. In focusing on the former, they increase the chances that education will lead to lifelong interest in these dimensions of life. One way to encourage general education is to work in faculty teams to develop course materials and methods that can then be 73
AGRICULTURE AND THE UNDERGRADUATE shared. This approach has several advantages. First, it encour- ages Interdisciplinarity. Second, it allows for peer review during the course development process. Third, it frees courses from the need for lectures, allowing more time for competency-based learn- ing and a more fulfilling role for faculty. Until recently, we emphasized knowledge and theory because it was difficult to give students direct experience. Todays technolo- gies allow for computer simulations, videotapes that support ln- quiry by allowing students to observe a shared experience, and interactive video modules that allow students to safely experiment with, for example, land use decisions. These technologies are Just now beginning to find a place in higher education. They hold particular potential for helping us to realize the goals of general education by providing opportunities for experience, to simulate the impact of decisions over time, or to see the consequences of what would otherwise be dangerous, if not disastrous, action. Finally, a general education program will be successful only to the extent that both the students and the faculty understand its objectives and participate in it self-consciously. Curriculum devel- opment must go hand in hand with faculty development. This could include ongoing faculty seminars on the major issues to which the curriculum is addressed. Or it might mean creating new rela- tionships between faculty and students by treating faculty research issues as cases for instructional inquiry, bringing students and fac- ulty together around real issues of immediate concern to both. Conclusion General education is not a single curriculum. It is an approach to building and maintaining a curriculum. The final curriculum should reflect the mission of the institution, its location, and its traditions. A general education curriculum can include components of liberal education; it can be highly structured or student initiated; it can be a lot of different things. But all general education curricula share the basic characteristics that I have discussed here. The key lies in taking seriously the issues of defining our terms, of testing and constantly retesting our assumptions, and by keeping clearly in sight the goal of preparing students to live and function as profes- sionals in their future. References Miller, G. E. 1988. The Meaning of General Education: The Emergence of a Curriculum Paradigm. New York: Teachers College Press. Reich, R. B. 1991. The real economy. The Atlantic 267(2):35-52. 74