On General Education (Part II)

In my first post on general education, I emphasized the importance of faculty becoming more aware of their own conceptions of general education. In that post, I introduced one common view of general education — the view that the purpose of general education is to provide both foundational knowledge and breadth of knowledge. So, what other views are out there?

In this post, I want to discuss just two different views on general education that are NOT radically different from the common view. Rather, each view can be understood as merely a pivot from the common view– to a slightly different vantage point. With our attention shifted slightly, I hope we can step back and see general education anew, and I also hope we can gain perspective on the common conception, including a better sense of its limitations and liabilities.

So here it is– a different perspective:

General education should aim to support students in making connections between different domains of knowledge.

That’s it. Simple enough.

But I’ll suggest it is radically different. Here’s why:

Models of general education that adhere to the common conception aim to provide students with foundational knowledge (that theoretically should be applicable across domains), and also provide students with breadth of knowledge in many domains (across which connections could theoretically be sought). In reality, however, students are often left on their own to make these connections — that is, to transfer their more general knowledge and skills into specific domains, to synthesize across specific domains of knowledge in order to produce more general / power understandings, and to hybridize their knowledge across domains to generate new ways of knowing that may not have existed before. That is, general education courses may provide students with the raw materials, but they often do nothing to help students integrate those into a meaningful experiences or understandings.

Here is another way to say a similar thing. At a recent AAC&U conference, a faculty participant made the following analogy that has stuck with me:  This participant likened the most common general education structures as akin to only ever getting to taste ingredients separately–ingredients that in theory could go together into making delicious food. Students get to taste flour in one course, salt in another, eggs in a third, and perhaps even butter or sugar in a fourth course. Unsurprisingly, no one very much enjoys these separate tastings.  Alone, each ingredient can seem either quite bland and boring or too singular in their flavor and texture. Each of the ingredients is experienced as disconnected from each other, and so it’s hard to see how they might go together.

There’s a lot more to say about this perspective of general education. But for now, it’s worth pausing to consider: How might general education need to be different if the goal is not to ensure adequate distribution of knowledge across domains, but to ensure integration of knowledge across domains?

  • Would we need different types of courses or would the same ones work?
  • What would you want / need to know about what’s happening in other general education courses?
  • How would the types of assignments (for student learning) and assessments (of student learning) need to change in order to support this new goal?

Final words: You could be reading this and thinking that the two perspectives so far are not in fact different. I want to argue that they are different. In the common conception, generalized foundational knowledge  and distributed specific knowledge is the goal; whereas in the second conception, courses that focus on on generalized knowledge and distributed specific knowledge are necessary means for getting students to develop integrated / connected understanding.  That is, the goal of the first is a means of the second.

OK, so now I’m going to introduce a second perspective on general education, and to do so, you are going have to forget about the first one for a moment. Here it is:

General education courses (individually and collectively) should support a shared vision for student learning (whatever it may be) — one that is specific, explicit, and can be instantiated in an overarching way across different domains.

That’s really wordy and abstract, so I’ll tell a story to help. I was recently talking with a colleague about his general education astronomy course, and the colleague said something like, “I just want students to leave my class understanding why the earth is not flat.” This learning goal is very “astronomy specific”, but it’s not too hard to find kernels of “generality”.  I offered that perhaps if he was the overlord of all general education, he would want the goal to be something like “for students to confront deeply held but mistaken beliefs” or, “to grapple with seemingly-right ideas by understanding both what makes them so seductive and also flawed.”  Now, I’m not suggesting this as a goal (or non-goal) for general education. What I am putting forth is the idea the goals of general education need to be made explicit and they need to offer some footholds to transcend disciplinary boundaries.

The question I then posed to my colleague was, “What do you think it would look like for all general education courses to be about that goal – the goal of helping students confront deeply help but mistaken goals?”  How do you think that would inform the content of our courses? How would that inform the pedagogy of our courses? How would that inform the types of assignments and assessments we administer in our general education courses?

To step back from this specific claim, this third conception of general education says that it’s important for everyone teaching across their disciplines to knows and be aware of common threads courses need to be driving students along. These threads could relate to aspects of critical thinking, or inquiry, or ethics, or intercultural competence, or information literacy, etc. The point here is that everyone is working towards teaching the same set of something(s) that are more “general” than any one discipline, and that these something can be instantiated meaningfully in disciplines in ways that contribute more generally to that learning.

So how is this different than the common conception of general education? The common conceptions treats the word “general” as the general list of things we want students to be generally educated about. Whereas the “word” general, in this conception, refers to the specific ways of understanding, reasoning, or being that we help to generalize through a process of individually and collectively nurturing it across our courses. From the common conception, foundational knowledge is something we see as intrinsically generalizable, and we expects students to bring this knowledge with them to other courses.  Whereas in this third conception, foundational knowledge is generalizable through a process of carefully structured learning opportunities. Instructors should therefore have a better sense of what we are all “generally” trying to accomplish, independent of (or perhaps interdependent with) our own specific disciplinary aims.

Again, it’s worth asking: How might general education need to be different to support this view?

OK, so now I’ve written my 2nd post about general education, here is some food for thought:

  • First, I’ll put forth the claim that the common conception of general education tends to silo disciplines from each other. It does not require that instructors / departments seek out a common sense of purpose, nor that they coordinate their efforts. In contrast, the two conceptions of general education introduced above seek to connect disciplines in one way or another; and thus they place more responsibility on instructors / departments to seek out common purpose and to coordinate their efforts. Siloing is perhaps the norm for academia, so it should not be surprising that this is common for general education. 


  • Second, the common conception of general education does not require much self-awareness about general education. Everyone teaches their own courses, fulfilling their role of either providing foundational knowledge or breadth of knowledge. In contrast, the two conceptions here require that everyone become much more aware of their goals and their values and how those goals and values overlap with others. All of this ties into my first post about the importance of becoming increasingly aware of our conceptions of general education. For many of us, our working in general education did not require conscious awareness of it, and so it is hard work to begin this process of awareness.


  • Finally, I want to say (again) that I’m not necessarily advocating for the two views above, nor am I saying that I’ve gotten these two views perfectly right. There are, of course, other views of general education that depart even more widely. The point of this post is to begin helping readers to open the door on their own understanding of general education. To do so, I introduced two ways of thinking about general education that are only slightly different than the common conception. Yet, still, that shift is significant and has important implications for how we think about our current model of general education and any potential changes going forward.


In my 3rd post,

  1. I will provide details about the current model of general education at MTSU, and how that fits with the common conception.
  2. I will unpack what we have learned about faculty goals, aspirations, and concerns regarding Gen Ed from focus groups and surveys we have completed.
  3. I will also begin to introduce a few components of alternative models of general education, but the details of that will probably end up in a 4th post.

6 thoughts on “On General Education (Part II)

Add yours

  1. The coordination you talk about for both of these perspectives is awesome when it happens, but requires vigilance by someone to make sure it continues to happen. What’s interesting to me about the first one is the argument we always have about capstone experiences. When people suggest cross-disciplinary capstone courses where students need to put into practice the types of things you mention in the first perspective, people get excited. Until they hear that logistically it might mean they can’t do their disciplinary capstone experiences. Then they say the cross-disciplinary ones won’t work without the fundamental grounding the disciplinary ones give students.

    My question for you: in the first (and possibly second) perspective, do you think students need clear fundamental grounding in each discipline first before tackling the coordinated efforts you describe?

    1. Yes, I think what you said is some of why I tend to prefer the 2nd of the two — interdisciplinary can be great, but also challenging for reasons you’ve stated. In practice, yes I agree, the issues of coordination and vigilance are central to sustaining efforts, and needs to be carefully planned for. I think some structures / components for gen ed make it easier / harder to see how you might do that. As to your question, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for students to get a clear grounding in a discipline first, but it may be necessary for certain models. For example, I could imagine a series of courses thematically organized around “origins” — origins of the universe, origins of language, origins of life, origins of civilization, etc, where it’s possible to engage students in comparing and contrasting, making connection, asking questions that could be meaningful without extreme depth in any of the disciplines. To do well, coordination would be needed across the courses, both to frame classes one ways that help connect them, but also in requiring assignments to push students to do that connecting work explicitly. Thinking of the right “slice of content” or right “generalizes learning goal” to connect the disciplines is critical to making it work. It’s incredibly complex and daunting.

  2. You might be interested in looking at the general-education requirements for UCSC:

    There is still a lot of one-of-this, one-of-that, but the individual requirements are justified pedagogically, and are not limited to particular departments. Every program is required to have a “disciplinary communcation” requirement for example, not relegating writing to just the writing department. Our biomolecular engineering department has two “textual analysis” courses, though such courses were originally thought of as being primarily for the humanities departments.

    Not part of ‘general education”, but every major is required to have a capstone experience of some sort. In some majors this is a journal club, while in several of the engineering programs it is a year-long design project. The engineering projects are deliberately inter-disciplinary—even ones like the iGEM synthetic biology project (one of the four choices for biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics majors) which includes fund-raising, public outreach, ethics, web-site design, bioinformatics, and even design of electronics hardware, in addition to the wet-lab biology.

    Interdisciplinary capstones can work well, if the projects students choose really are interdisciplinary by nature, and not just two separate projects glued together. It is important to have faculty who have a breadth of interests and don’t promote narrow silos themselves—if faculty are only interested in one subject, they can easily destroy an interdisciplinary capstone.

    1. Thanks. I will definitely check it out. I have learned so much by finding out more about other programs. And Yeah, discipline-embedded foundation-type courses are definitely a good tool for thinking about some of this. writing and communication come up frequently but also history and mathematics. Our department requires a capstone, but it’s not university wide. In our general education, we are mandated by law to have 41 credits of general education all at the lower division, which definitely puts constraints on some options in general education. And right now in current structure , it’s definitely hard if not impossible for courses in “wrong” department to get approval for gen ed. For example, a course on personal finance wanted to get approved as a math Gen Ed, and even though they substantially addressed the learning outcomes, it was shot down. It’s going to a lot of work, with bumps in the road, but I’m still excited about it.

  3. It required a 2-year-long effort to do the redesign of the general-education curriculum, after an effort about 10 years earlier had failed (passing a voice vote then failing an e-mail vote by a couple of votes).

    Changing the design to be deliberately not tying requirements to specific departments was an important aspect—it helped get buy-in from a lot of departments that did not have existing built-in gen-ed enrollment.

    1. We are less than one year into a multi-year effort. Last fall, faculty learning communities were formed to learn more about general education. In the spring, participants from that community led campus wide focus groups with faculty and developed, adminstered, and analyzed surveys from students. This summer, strategic planning was initiated and a redesign team + advisory board were formed. The redesign team has been spending this summer further learning and preparing for further faculty engagement in process. So that’s where we are at moment, learning a lot so we can further engage / lead this initiative.

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