University 103 Blog

Having THE Talk - About General Education

Last winter, at one of my step-daughter’s volleyball tournaments, a group of us were discussing our kids’ college prospects.  One of the fathers said and I paraphrase, “I don’t want Susie to go to a liberal arts college.  I don’t want her to become brainwashed in liberal think.”  This statement came from a successful businessman with a college education.  It made me wonder, what do most people think a liberal arts education is all about?  What do our students think a liberal arts education is all about?

If we value a liberal arts education we must begin to make that value explicit.   The overarching message received by most of our students ( fourty-four percent of whom are first-generation college students) is to go to college to get a good job.  The message rarely explains why a college degree is the gateway to a good job and higher earnings.   We often expect our students to inherently understand why these four (or more) years are valuable.  What distinguishes us (a liberal arts university) from a technical school is that we not only teach students how to use appropriate technology but we also teach them how to use their brain to solve complex and diverse problems –  a skill that never expires.  And it is that knowledge base and skill set that makes their degree valuable.  The more experiences our students have engaging their brain in different ways, the more valuable their college education.

Most faculty understand this, but do we understand how to articulate this value to our students?  Many of our FYI classes are naturally interdisciplinary; most likely, we regularly discuss different disciplines and approaches to issues.  Sometimes, a simple explicit statement explaining how these discussions are inherently liberal arts go a long way to helping students understand the point and purpose of a general education.    We are also approaching registration for the spring semester; and this provides another great opportunity to talk with our students about why they must select courses from the humanities, science and mathematics, and social sciences.  And it’s not because they need three of each!  What is the value of studying artifacts of the human intellect and imagination?  What is the value of learning how a scientific problem is evaluated?  What is the value of studying human society?  How do these three varied approaches to looking at problems help us in our daily lives?   As an earth scientist, I find these arguments pretty easy to make.  What is the value of nature and beauty?  How does its presence or lack thereof affect our lives?  How do we adequately assess the environmental contamination associated with fracing?  How do we determine the economic cost and benefit associated with fracing?  I’m sure we all can come up with a dozen examples/questions that would be meaningful to our students.

So, in the coming weeks, let’s have the talk with our students.  Let’s talk about critical thinking and communication and different ways of studying problems.  Let’s talk about why this general education thing is so important.  We all have examples and anecdotes – let’s share them with our students and make the liberal arts less mysterious and more meaningful.

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