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General Education in the Twenty-first Century (review)

From: The Journal of General Education
Volume 58, Number 4, 2009
pp. 296-301 | 10.1353/jge.0.0053

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This report summarizes and recommends general education reforms, with advice on implementations. It is most useful to administrators and faculty who wish to reform general education at their institutions without adding to the roadkill resulting from most such reform attempts. The authors take up current status quo practices from a nationwide sample; those practices are inventoried, deplored, and mined for insights. The authors present readers a formidable case for reform. They then inventory contemporary reform efforts (with some notes on external funding). The writers offer strong recommendations regarding several areas (not all detailed in this review), including giving general education administrators teeth, coping with transfer issues, providing civic education, using distance education technologies wisely, and mastering assessment. Would-be reformers will end their reading not only informed about the status quo and reform efforts in general education but armed for debate and with reasons for caution.

The report in hard copy is an uptown production: large-format pages (so the page count might mislead one regarding the reading time or chapter lengths), a slim package on heavy stock, ready to be handed around in meetings on campus and capable of returning intact with sticky notes and marginalia. The report is generally well edited, with very few typos and only occasional brief outbreaks of speaking in tongues, Bureaucratese or Policywonk. There are several compensating short sections that are eloquent, with strong and quotable lines, and some summaries of masterful terseness. Don't wait for the movie. The book is organized in digestible chunks, with an executive summary, a prologue giving national and historical context, ten chapters (called sections), a section (not called a section) reviewing recommendations, useful endnotes, and three appendixes including tabular summaries of general education requirements at many institutions. The online .pdf file gives links from the table of contents to sections and appendixes. The package, either online or hard copy, is easy to use.

In this review I emphasize sections broadly applicable to those working on ambitious general education initiatives rather than on modifications. Then I will look at what's missing and at some implications that could add to the report's recommendations and help reformers.

The contextualizing prologue will help strengthen the resolve of reformers. Higher education is facing a great many serious challenges, but one of the main ones is the challenge to its own adequacy. That challenge is not about the fairly recent fad of offering majors but, instead, is about the loss of a coherent center to the bachelor's degree. Not that providing a center will be easy. The report summarizes several factors leading to this problem, including

—students' and parents' (and legislators') myopic focus on jobs preparation in ignorance of accelerating changes in career demands and the needs for general literacy and thinking skills,

—a consumer model emphasizing choices, and

—the difficulty of achieving consensus on what a core would include if we resist turning that core into a rationale for white patriarchy.

Section 3, "Structure and Culture of the Academic Disciplines," and section 4, "Integrating General Education into the Fabric of the University," fit together, though it is not obvious at first, as analysis of a problem and a look at some solutions. Section 3 provides an analysis of, among other things, the extent to which organizing academe around departments contributes to difficulties for strengthening general education. The buzzword is silos, though surely that word will have buzzed off into oblivion or back into management lit by the time this review sees print, as soon as someone thinks harder about silage. Departmental structure is foundational, not just within universities. It is built into budgeting, influences catalogs of book publishers and journals, organizes conferences and want ads, and provides a home and a primary locus for decisions. General education participation is often a choice made by consenting departments as an added and optional activity, and it is clearly a second choice to maintaining the major when things get rough.

Section 4, on integrating general education into the fabric of universities, begins by commenting on and endorsing the current move on many campuses to appoint the moral equivalent of a vice provost or dean with primary portfolio the administration of general education...