Give majors an overhaul.

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 17 2005 6:48 AM

College Makeover

Give majors an overhaul.

What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate's "College Week."

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.

If I could wave a magic wand, I'd abolish all talk of "general education" and get back to the liberal arts. Harvard's 1945 Red Book, General Education in a Free Society, gave the term general education wide currency and implicitly defined the issue in undergraduate education as a battle between general and specialized knowledge. That was a mistake, and so was the idea that "general education" was the same as "liberal education." The artes liberales are not some sample of great ideas of the (Western) world. These artes are crafts, skills, cognitive capacities. Historically they have included forms of quantitative reasoning, systematic ways of thinking about truth and values, and the means to express ideas clearly and persuasively. That's why they were sometimes equated with the medieval quadrivium and trivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, grammar, logic or dialectic, and rhetoric.

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Such lists sound quaint and culture-bound, but behind them is the lasting and cross-cultural need to teach people to analyze, evaluate, and persuade. Those cognitive capacities are immensely valuable but not swiftly acquired. They take systematic development from day one, through every course and project, up to and including departmental requirements, research projects, senior theses, capstone courses, and comprehensive exams.

And that's where the old general education went most seriously astray. It let advanced courses and, especially, the undergraduate major, off the hook. Faculty teaching these courses didn't have to think about liberal education or about its goals. General education took care of all that. They could get on with cloning the next generation of specialists.

It is time to step back, think again, and restructure. To develop the cognitive skills that constitute a true liberal education takes a coherent system, with broad introductory courses playing a part but specialized, disciplinary work making its contribution, too. The starting point has to be something that too rarely happens: faculty sitting down to argue about how these perennially needed cognitive capacities—the skills to analyze, evaluate, and persuade—are to be realized on their campus.

Under the pattern I am advocating, a student majoring in English would find her departmental courses less likely to be designed as preparation for graduate school and more directly concerned with developing her abilities in one or more of the competencies of the liberal arts. The subject matter might still be Shakespeare or the Gothic novel, but from the outset each course would be explicit about the skills it aimed to develop and fully intentional about the way it went about developing them. It might, for example, set as a goal developing the ability to write clearly about the values implicit in the texts being studied. That can be a revealing way of approaching a work of literature, but it can also develop a "transferable skill," important in settings far removed from academia. In such a course, our English major would be more likely to find herself sitting next to students majoring in other fields and to engage with them about the big questions that underlie all important literary texts. And she herself might be more willing to enroll in a course in population biology if she knew it would be taught in a way that helped majors and nonmajors alike develop their abilities to use quantitative analysis to understand otherwise puzzling behavior.

That means, however, that courses must be redesigned and advising improved so that a genuinely coherent system results. Every stage of instruction must ask what it can do best and make that goal explicit for both teachers and students. That's not so hard to do once one frees oneself from the false rhetoric of the old general education.

W. Robert Connor, a classicist, is president of the Teagle Foundation, a New York philanthropy devoted to strengthening liberal education.