Monday, December 14, 2015

A Pitch for Gen Eds

1. One of the courses I taught this semester was a "First Year Experience" (FYE) course. This is a brilliant idea of having all new students take a general education course with a high touch that connects them to each other and a professor from the very start.

So we met as a class before the semester even began. We did orientation together. We did a service project together. We had pizza parties and did coffee together. I think we all feel really close to each other. It's just an all around great experience.

2. One of the goals of the orientation was to convince the students that a liberal arts education is valuable. Elaine Bernius gave a great pitch during orientation, but I'm not sure she persuaded them.

I would contend that the phrase, "liberal arts," is part of the problem. We academics know the phrase. It has a very, very long history. It has nothing to do with being liberal (unless truth in itself is liberal).

But it communicates nothing to the uninitiated. You'll notice I titled this post as a pitch for "gen eds," for "general education" courses in a college curriculum. Not as grand, but an easier sell, I think. Academia has a penchant for putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of achieving its goals.

Since fostering an appreciation for the liberal arts was one goal of this FYE course, I gave it the old college try for this essay on the final--"What is the benefit of studying the 'liberal arts' at a place like Indiana Wesleyan University?" I gave a 10 minute pitch for the role of gen eds in a college curriculum at a place like IWU.

3. I moved from what I thought would be the easier sell to the harder one. Since a Christian education in a Christian environment is probably the main reason to come to a place like IWU, I figured the Christian component was a no brainer.

Students on the residential campus take OT Survey, NT Survey, Theology, and Philosophy as part of their gen ed program. OT and NT give you biblical foundations. Theology organizes those foundations into a systematic form. Philosophy then gives you a Christian worldview. You might argue that the goal could be accomplished in three courses, but it seems to me that these courses are the core of a Christian education.

4. My next slide had history, psychology, and sociology on it. These courses help us see ourselves. The human default is to assume that the way our tribe does things is the only way. We don't see the long view. We don't see that we are doing something dangerous that was done before. We don't realize what's going on with our inner psychology. We don't realize the social dynamics that are taking place.

In other words, these courses are key to the success of civilization. They help us see ourselves. They disabuse us of the strong impression that anyone with a brain will see things like we do. Without a sense of history, society, and ourselves, we are little different than herd animals in a woodland.

5. My next slide was on writing and communication. These are very, very important skills for the workplace. I remember hearing a study that said some tech businesses would rather hire an English major with communication skills than an MBA who doesn't have them. The ability to communicate is essential in the marketplace. This, again, I think is a no brainer.

6. The last slide was the hardest sell, I thought. What is the value of having to take courses in art, literature, and science?

For art and literature, I put that these courses help us not to be communists. In the Soviet Union, everything took on a utilitarian value. What value does x have for the nation? The USSR engaged in art and sport to be the best, in competition with other nations. No doubt the individual artists did it for love the art, but one gets the feeling that they were pawns in a bigger machine.

The arts and literature are about being human. The view that everything has to do something, has to give a life skill, in and of itself is wrong. The psalms are not in the Bible to teach us things. They are in Scripture as expressions of worship, thanksgiving, sadness, and anger. They validate art and literature as part of God's plan for the world. Without them we are not yet fully human.

Finally, science and math teach us that God has rules we can't break. The most extreme relativist doesn't jump off buildings. S/he knows that the science doesn't work. These disciplines should teach us that our opinions of global warming don't matter a lick. What do experts on the subject think?

7. We perhaps have not taught these courses in ways that bring out their value. Those who teach them love them (which is valuable), but when a professor like me is allowed to teach what he or she likes (rather than in accordance with why that course is in the curriculum), students often don't see the value.

For this reason, unless the students are given a smorgasbord of options, these general education courses have to be carefully designed. They are not the property of the division or professor who teaches them. They are the property of the "liberal arts" goal as a whole.

Well, I don't know if I convinced anyone, but I gave it a shot.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Gen Ed courses should be a broad foundation.