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The Journal of General Education 49.3 (2000) 165-181

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Tensions and Models in General Education Planning

Robert R. Newton

A Perennial Planning Issue

Discussions of general education have become a permanent fixture in American higher education, reflecting the perennial struggle between general education and specialization. The undergraduate curriculum, originally a unified, common, prescribed program in virtually all colleges, has been eroded in various historical periods by the rise of electives, the need for specialized programs, and the emergence of new knowledge. As these centrifugal forces strengthened, periodic counterattacks were mounted by those who wished to restore unity and coherence in the form of a resuscitated core curriculum or general education program (Rudolph, 1977). The battlefield of undergraduate education is strewn with the skeletons of well-meaning but unsuccessful reformers who attempted to stem the tide of specialization in defense of general education. The revival of interest in general education over the past two decades is in part a recognition that the forces of departmentalization and specialization continue in the ascendancy and are advancing virtually unopposed; this recognition is to the dismay of those for whom breadth is the essential foundation of an effective undergraduate education (Association of American Colleges, 1985).

In spite of the extensive time and effort that continues to go into reexamining general education programs, frequently only a few members of blue ribbon general education reform committees are well prepared for the task. More often than not they have little background in the history of general education, insufficient understanding of the underlying pedagogical issues, or minimal acquaintance with competing models of general education. [End Page 165]

A useful context would be one in which busy faculty, unfamiliar with general education trends, might understand the issues surrounding general education reform and the assumptions of competing models. This context would include:

  • the tensions and issues which will likely emerge in a general education exploration,

  • the competing models of general education a committee is likely to encounter both among its own members and in surveying the programs of other institutions, and

  • an analysis of how the different models might fit into different kinds of institutions.

Four Tensions in General Education

Contemporary tensions that confront general education reformers involve four issues:

  • unity versus fragmentation (knowledge),

  • breadth versus depth (student learning),

  • generalist versus specialist (faculty competence), and

  • Western culture versus cultural diversity (content).


Reflection on the purposes of general education inevitably exposes a fundamental disagreement on the nature of a college or university. Some emphasize the clear distinctions embodied in the foci and methods of the different disciplines and see the university as a loose collection of sharply defined departments drawn together under a broad institutional mission. Others stress a unity and coherence in the pursuit of knowledge that transcends departmental divisions and view the university as a common enterprise based on a coherent set of widely accepted assumptions.

The former would expose students to many disciplines, and assume that students themselves will construct a coherent understanding of the world from these separate experiences. The latter [End Page 166] would design an integrated set of courses that brings together the disciplines either through blurring the lines among disciplines or insisting on a structure that promotes an underlying unity and greater coherence among general education courses. On the one hand, the emphasis on a broad sampling of the various disciplines reflects the rich, diverse interests and shape of a contemporary university, but it may suffer, as many complain the university itself does, from the defect of its virtue--fragmentation. On the other hand, striving for the realization of a genuine academic community based on shared interests, a common body of knowledge, and a concern for common problems may seek an elusive unity that has diminishing significance to an increasingly specialized and discipline-oriented faculty.

Student Learning

In the beginning, American colleges provided a broad common education for their students. This approach eroded over time because of three developments: the introduction of new disciplines, the enormous increase in the amount of knowledge, and the emphasis on faculty research and publication. These movements...


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