Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Purpose of General Education

I am beginning to get involved in a project to move some high enrollment Gen Ed course to blended format or totally online. A grant proposal to an outside Foundation is being prepared and I'm helping with the conceptualization of what should be in the proposal. As I've been thinking about this the last couple of days, I've found that I can't separate the question – what is the benefit from moving a course in good part or totally to online? – from the other question – what are the big picture goals of the course or set of courses? Then I ask myself whether I know something about the answers to these questions based on personal experience. Here I start to scratch my head.

My undergraduate education was odd in that I can only remember a very small number of courses that I took because "they were required." My first semester at MIT I took two math classes, chemistry, and physics. There was a humanities/social science distribution requirement. I took a course with a title like: Men, man, and machine. There was some interesting stuff in the course but I wasn't ready or disposed to give the subject its due. And the school signaled it was less important than the other courses, which were 4 credit hours (transposing MITs system of assigning credits which imputes the out of class time). This social science course was only 3 credit hours. That course continued into the second semester. As a sophomore I took a course on Plato and Aristotle. It wasn't the first course in Philosophy but MIT was willing to waive prerequisites, which for my own learning has been my view right along. (We tend to enforce prerequisites here at Illinois.)

When I transferred to Cornell, I found I was quite far along toward the math major, so I stuck with that because it was a milestone within reach and it gave me maximum flexibility to take other courses as I saw fit. I had to fulfill the language requirement. Either the rest of the general education requirements were waived as a result of my transfer or I satisfied them via courses I wanted to take anyway. I had a desire to take political science classes – where I believe I learned quite a bit – and dabble with philosophy - where I couldn't penetrate it or it couldn't penetrate me, with the possible exception of a philosophy of law course I took as a senior.

That first semester after I transferred I took a course on Women and Politics. Werner Dannhauser was the professor and I believe I took the course because of him. Among other readings we read Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, Goethe, Elective Affinities, and Simone de Beuvoir, The Second Sex. This was a tonic for me. The next year I took a course on American Politics and another on American Political Thought. In that latter we read Croly's, The Promise of American Life, which was an eye opener. I remember the feeling of personal awakening more than the content of the book, something I next felt again more than 20 years later when I read Democracy and Education, which I was then predisposed toward having thought a good deal about ALN at that time. I do recall the big question with Croly was why we so revere Abraham Lincoln and what was his lasting legacy. Further, Croly was writing around 1900 when the Progressives needed a rallying cry. In that same course we discussed Heimert's book on evangelical origins of the American Revolution. I can't say I penetrated that very well. But it again opened my eyes to a different way of thinking. Taxation without representation didn't make sense as a cause – for the poor farmer who did most of the fighting. For the signers of the Declaration of Independence, sure, but they were rich landowners. For the majority of the people, the revolution wasn't about economics. It was about the tyranny of the Church of England. (Recently I read a biography of Roger Williams that made a similar point and indicated that the idea of separation of Church and State stemmed from this cause.) In the American Politics course I recall reading a variety of Bobbs-Merill abstracts that were journal article reprints, my first exposure to scholarly publication in that form. I don't recall the particular pieces but among the authors were Seymour Martin Lipset which I thought was great stuff and we read some things by Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, though I don't believe the complete Beyond The Melting Pot. The course was full of ideas that were either entirely new to me or that challenged things I had been taught in High School or earlier. I loved that stuff.

Along with this formal social science education I had had wonderful out of the classroom learning, both with my housemates at 509 Wyckoff Road discussing politics of the day and variety of other topics and by attending a film series at Old Rusty. I watched a lot of Truffaut, some films of Jan Kadar, and oneoffs like Closely Watched Trains and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. It was a way to get interesting ideas from a variety of perspectives, quite different from the American point of view. This viewing was a good chunk of my PLA (personal learning agenda) which I often did on my own, because I felt the need and inclination. (Going to the movies alone is a weird thing to do, as a social activity, because obviously it isn't. But as an intellectual activity akin to reading a book it is perfectly natural.)

Back to my head scratching. I'm wondering what's the difference between the course type of learning that is the basis of General Education and the PLA type of learning that I'd hope most of us do because we are inquisitive human beings. Does one lead to another? Or are they entirely different animals? As my earlier post on PLA indicated, I had a good bit of that already before college. What about students who don't. (Increasingly I believe even the good students are so over programmed that they end up doing many things for the credential rather than to pursue their own intellectual interest.) I wanted the coursework because I'd get insight and exposure to ideas that I likely couldn't produce on my own. And perhaps the political science interest was a sensible precursor for the economics I was to study in graduate school, though I'm less certain of that connection. What about students who don't have the inclination for social science?

It is tempting to respond with the Dorothy Parker quote, about when she was asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence. But that would be unfair to the students. Not knowing what would be fair, I will instead give an aspirational response. Whether it is realistic to expect students to meet these aspirations is a different matter.

Most of what students learn as undergrads have value not so much as things in themselves but as pathways into the larger meta skills, the biggest of which is learning to learn. In turn learning to learn requires being open to new ideas, so not being a closed book. General Education then is a guarding against our own provincialism. However, as I indicated in the opening quote by Eric Hoffer to my Inside Higher Ed piece, there is a natural tendency to be fearful of the new. Quite possibly, the new could hurt us. So General Education must be about overcoming that fear or, at least, coming to grips with it, by which I mean not a complete cave in. Once so exposed there is then the added dimension of how one internalizes the new and takes some of it for one's own while rejecting other parts of it entirely. General Education needs to help with the internalization processes and with the development of a sense of taste about what should be internalized. And quite often it is not that the new makes a wholesale replacement of the old. It is rather that they both coexist, distinct but related. General Education has to be about seeing gray when beforehand everything seemed black and white.

When most educators get queried about what college education should produce, both general education and the major, the response is usually laced full of reference to "critical thinking" and the ability to communicate, to the extent that both have become bromides essentially devoid of meaning. So let me use some other terms that don't get discussed that often. One is sitzfleisch. The word perseverance may come to mind, but they are not synonyms. With sitzfleisch, the persistence results by force of personality. With perseverance, the persistence can emerge from a variety of causes. Tom Friedman had an interesting column on this last Sunday. But he uses the expression, "deferred gratification," which I don't like because it conveys the wrong meaning. With deferred gratification the object of attention changes but what we really want lingers in the background. Sitzfleisch means that no other objects even comes to mind until the particular situation reaches a complete resolution.

Another term is reading comprehension. Mainly it is assumed that students have that capacity upon entering the university, though many do not. It is not just making out the meaning of individual sentences. It requires the ability to suspend judgment on an idea while retaining skepticism as to its truth. It also means having methods of testing and corroboration that make the idea appear increasingly credible when it is true, but otherwise not. And it means not applying one's own spin to what is happening in the piece when so doing distorts the meaning that others would make of it. My fear is that reading comprehension is mainly about reading – there is learning by doing – and many students don't read enough. We end up sorting those who do from the rest. General Education should be about getting the rest to read more and more deeply.

Let me make a little aside before getting to a third term. A few nights ago I saw Dersu Uzala, which I had recorded on the DVR. It's with subtitles, which I used to think would be off putting on TV. But now we have a reasonably large flat screen in the bedroom on which to watch, so the text was large and quite readable and appeared below the movie, which was in letterbox. After a few minutes of viewing where I was quite conscious of reading the substitles, I lost all sense of that and simply got into the story. It is a wonderful and charming film. I had thought it was a Russian movie, but Kurosowa was the director. The story takes place in between 1902 and 1910 in Siberia. It is a story of an accidental but deep friendship that develops between a Russian Military captain, who leads a party to survey the territory and a native Goldi "mountain man" Dersu, who becomes a guide and advisor. The picture is about the nature of the wilderness and the gentle and respectful tone the two develop for each other. Dersu, primitive as he is, values his fellow man, irrespective of race, and his humanity as well as his skill in navigating the wilderness is what so impresses the captain.

During the time period of this film, the Russians fought the Japanese in a brutal war. My grandfather left Russia for America then, to avoid the fighting. There is no mention of this conflict across nations in the film. And I really don't know if Kurosowa intended this movie as a social commentary. But I took it so, and in that way the theme is similar to the theme of The Visitor, which also has characters that are exceptionally gentle, though trapped in a world that is otherwise not. In Kurosowa's movie, the captain is Caucasian. Dersu is Asian. Overcoming their racial difference matters for the story.

So my third term is warmth, human warmth, the type begat by gentleness, and denied by militancy. I really don't know if it is teachable or not. If it is, then it should be a primary goal. Compassion and empathy stem from it, but human warmth is a precondition and not one and the same with these others. It can be found in silly interactions and other exchanges that are of no consequence. It is not reserved only for the profound moments. Above all, it shows some comprehension of the human condition.

If the foundation is not already there, my hope would be that General Education would push students to develop in each of these dimensions and to develop a lifelong desire to continue to improve this way. Does anyone else conceive of General Education this way?

I can't answer that. I know that in thinking about teaching intermediate microeconomics next spring (it is not a gen ed course here) I've been thinking a lot about what will motivate the students and get them interested in the economics. I've been reading Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers and I think I will use it as a parallel reading for the students so they can get the history of economic ideas and see them exposited in a captivating way. I had read it as an undergrad in introductory macroeconomics, but it didn't stick with me then. So why I should expect it to stick with my students next semester is a mystery I will have to work through. But I can say that I'm enjoying it quite a bit now, in large part because the historical circumstances under which the economic ideas were invented are largely paralleled today. The relevance is immediate to me. And I hope that taps into student motivation.

Near the conclusion of Heilbroner's chapter on Keynes, he offers up a bit by Keynes writing about his old teacher, Alfred Marshall. It seems fitting so I will close with it.
The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy or pure science? An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man's nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.
It must take an economist to presume that the purpose of General Education is to produce other economists.


pumpkiny said...

Masterful post. I haven't had time to fully reflect, but your thoughts on human warmth brought to mind a recent article on how empathy is allegedly decreasing:

Original author

NYT summary

I'm skeptical about the "technology is evil" part...

Lanny Arvan said...

Pumpkin - thank you for the comment. I appreciate the boost.

I've gone to a couple of large lectures this semester in part to get a sense of whether the old way needs improving. There are many laptops and cell phones out. In my non-random sampling of that, mostly it was for non-class stuff. The pace of the class activities such that the kids felt the need to multi-process. I felt it too. The subject matter was interesting, but either it wasn't sufficiently challenging or it was delivered in too slow a way for the students to stay focused on it. Technology isn't the cause here, but it's use this way is a symptom of something awry.

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