Sunday, February 23, 2014

Possible New Gen Eds

Rebecca Townsend asked a great question recently.  Should public speaking be a general education requirement?

First, some definition.  Most colleges have certain skills that they want every graduate, regardless of major, to have.  Those skills -- in edu-speak, “general education outcomes” -- dictate certain course requirements for students across majors.  Typically, colleges will have the same basic set of outcomes specified: written communication, critical thinking, quantitative literacy, information literacy, and sometimes something about civic knowledge and/or diversity.  To ensure that all students graduate with some basic level of fluency in each, students have to take a certain set of courses outside their major.   Typically, some are tightly prescribed, like composition, while others are satisfied through choosing options from a list.  

In other words, there are very real internal allocation decisions that follow from how “general education” is defined.  And given a finite number of credits in a degree, it’s impractical to just pile on new requirements.  If you have too many, you might as well not have any.  I wouldn’t advise any college to have more than a half-dozen or so.  Adding new ones would require subtracting some existing ones, and you could count on the affected departments to have something to say about that.

Against that background, then, a proposed new requirement would have consequences for staffing, scheduling, and student demand, as well as assessment.  That’s why questions like these tend not to get respectful hearings most of the time; the internal politics of making a change can easily trump the initially abstract gains.  But it’s still worth giving some thought from time to time.  

The idea of a public speaking requirement, for example, is not radically new, as anyone who knows her Aristotle can tell you.  Rhetoric was part of the trivium.  For that matter, a certain form of rhetoric can be traced to the pre-Socratics (the “sophists,” whose echoes remain in the words “sophistry” and “sophisticated”).  But somewhere along the line, it sort of fell away.  Most undergrads never take a public speaking course, though they do take multiple writing courses.  

I don’t think that’s because the ability to give a presentation has become irrelevant, or because effective public speaking can’t be taught.  As with writing, most may never become great, but most could become pretty good with time, instruction, and practice.  To the extent that students are being prepared for work in white-collar settings, I could envision a perfectly valid argument to the effect that the ability to present well to a group, to respond effectively to an audience, and to maintain poise under fire is both useful and scarce.  But most colleges don’t require it outside of a few, select majors.

At NACCE, I heard several people argue that “entrepreneurship” should be a general education requirement.  The idea there was that the economy has shifted to such a degree that we need to graduate a generation that knows how to do startups.  To the extent that colleges teach entrepreneurship at all, it’s usually within the confines of a business department or major.  But the folks who might benefit the most from it are IT majors and artists, neither of whom is typically found in a business major.

Over the past few years, some very sharp people have argued that “coding” should be a gen ed requirement.  The argument there, obviously, is that the rewards in our society are increasingly going to “techies,” but that “techies” have been largely a breed apart.  (For some sense of why that matters, do a search on “brogrammer” and see what you find.)  To the extent that the population of people with coding skills can be expanded and diversified -- in terms of both demographics and substantive interests -- we all stand to benefit.  It’s getting increasingly difficult to function as an educated citizen without some technical literacy, and that trend isn’t likely to change.  

And of course, no list of popular prospective gen eds would be complete without some variation on “personal finance.”  Simple economic self-defense requires some basic understanding of compound interest and amortization.  In the U.S., terms like “co-pay” and “deductible” matter in concrete and often powerful ways.  A good personal finance course could combine information literacy, quantitative literacy, and a bit of applied sociology, as well as easily passing the “news you can use” test.  

Each of these has its merits, and I’m sure there are more.  (I’m particularly fond of the public speaking and personal finance ones, myself.)  Community colleges can’t have this discussion on their own, since so many students transfer to four-year schools, and we don’t want to saddle students with credits that wouldn’t transfer.  The discussion would have to be across both institutions and levels.  That’s no small thing.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a new gen ed outcome you’d suggest?  Is there one that should be retired?  Or should we just move away from the concept altogether?