Tuesday, November 22, 2011

“General Education,” Within and Without

What do you expect a college graduate to know? What do you expect a college graduate to be like?

The questions are very different. They start from different assumptions, and are usually asked by different people with different goals. A good answer to one may not shed much light on the other.

Higher ed providers tend to look at “general education” as a body of knowledge (the traditional faculty view) or a set of competencies (the assessment-driven view). Either way, the assumption is that whatever the major, all college graduates should have a common base of knowledge and/or ability. Whether you look at it as a set of Great Books or the ability to think critically, there’s a shared sense that whatever else happens in college, students should come out with something specific and name-able that can be traced to a particular moment in the curriculum. It’s a sort of lowest common denominator that, paradoxically enough, draws on the highest traditions of Western thought. (The tension between the two is constant.)

In practice, general education is usually addressed through a set of either required courses, or distribution requirements for courses. Students freely discuss the imperative to “get their gen eds out of the way,” which speaks more to the “lowest common denominator” function than to the “highest traditions of Western thought” function. To students, gen ed requirements are the spinach they have to finish before they get to have dessert.

Having gone through yet another round of employer advisory boards, though, I’m consistently struck by how differently the non-academic world sees gen ed. Their expectations are dramatically different, which may explain why their suggestions (or complaints) are always the same.

I’ve never heard an employer complain that graduates hadn’t read a particular book or engaged a particular theory. That has never happened. I’ve also never heard an employer ask to look at our outcomes assessment rubrics.

Their feedback, regardless of the program, has been that whatever else graduates bring with them, they should bring basic employee skills. By that, they mean promptness, diligence, a positive or at least congenial demeanor, the ability to work with other people, and the ability to get the big picture. (To be fair, they also sometimes mention writing skills, though the version of writing they have in mind is usually grammatical correctness and basic clarity.)

The version of gen ed we use internally is content-based. The version employers seem to use is almost Calvinist. You are the kind of person who makes a good employee, or you are not. If you are, the specifics don’t matter that much; they can train you. If you aren’t, the specifics don’t matter that much, since a well-read screwup is still a screwup.

The vision the employers are using is a variation on cultural capital. It’s the idea that a college graduate is a particular kind of person, with a sense of how the world works and how to work within it. Their consistent feedback is that some graduates manage to get through the programs, sometimes even with decent grades, without quite ‘getting it.’

Even allowing for a certain amount of reverse ageism -- even the best-educated 22 year olds tend to be a little more volatile than the average 42 year old -- I have to admit there’s something to the complaints. Replacing this gen ed requirement with that gen ed requirement is unlikely to make headway on the sort of enculturation function the employers have in mind. I’m just not sure how to achieve that, especially in the setting of a commuter college with many students who haven’t grown up around that model.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to bridge the two visions of gen ed?