What exactly gen ed is, varies greatly from place to place. Take a look at WhatWillTheyLearn.org for a school-by-school comparison with "grades" for meeting certain (rather ideological) criteria. It's interesting that the top liberal arts schools tend to have very loose requirements--electives, almost.
The question "is it worth it?" has to be asked. In round numbers, the gen ed curriculum comprises a third of a bachelor's degree. At today's prices, that can easily amount to a $24,000 investment on the part of students, parents, and subsidizers*.
Note that I'm not talking about liberal arts majors, which have clear economic value, judging from a Wall Street Journal report. Below I've sorted the data by the percent increase in salary from start to mid-career, as an indication of the personal growth potential of the training--life-long learning, if you will. The top two are liberal arts degrees, and history, art history, and English are all above 70%--my artificial cut-off.
The question isn't whether English or math or philosophy is worth studying, but whether the broad and necessarily shallow treatment of a gen ed curriculum does any good. Despite the mighty weight of tradition, should we not make our null hypothesis that the price of a new Camry is not assumed to be a worthwhile investment? Let me put it another way. Suppose we were to now try to make the case that the gen ed curriculum isn't long enough--that we should double it to around 80 credit hours. There would surely be a high standard of proof asked of us.
The AAC&U calls itself "the leading national association committed to advancing and improving liberal education for all students." In practice, they have a lot of publications and conferences on the topic of liberal arts requirements, including the LEAP intitiative--a "panel of experts" approach to guide choices in constructing general education. One motivating factor was what employers said they wanted. You can find the list here. The top two are "science and technology" and "teamwork skills in diverse groups," followed by thinking and communications skills (including "applied knowledge") and intercultural knowledge.
Focusing on science and technology, the Pew Research Center published a survey here that summarizes results of a basic science quiz. It looks like high-school material to me (e.g. are electrons smaller than atoms?), but college grads did significantly better: 57% got at least 10 of the 12 questions correct, compared to 17% for high school or less. But is this cause and effect? Or is it simply that kids who go to college are a lot more likely to know the answers to basic science questions?
Thomas R. Cech makes the argument in "Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?" that liberal arts college do a great job of preparing students for a career in science and engineering. He gives statistics on PhDs/100 grads, for example. But again this is a focus on majors, not on the liberal arts as embodied in a general education curriculum.
Search for worth. I poked around on the AAC&U website looking for "worth of general education," and found only this. It's clearly a transcript or speaking notes for a session that should be on this page, but I can't find it to attribute properly; there's no author listed. The speaker gives two compatible reasons for gen ed to exist:
General education can be “foundational,” intended to build a beginningThere are plenty of other possible justifications, including the "broad knowledge" or cocktail party argument--what if our graduates are at a swank party and don't know who Plato was? The horror. More and more, you see civic engagement on the lists too.
knowledge base and competence, often in a few selected disciplines, but
potentially it could include a variety of intellectual skills and personal
A general education program could have an “interdisciplinary or integrative
purpose.” Such a program would seek to foster connections among knowledge
areas and other kinds of learning, and help students build understandings and
skills as they learn to employ multiple perspectives to address issues and solve
problems both in and out of the classroom.
The excerpted talk leads to an exercise of goal development and then assessment discussions, but no resolution to the question of value of the whole endeavor. I suppose that the assumption is that once you have a stated purpose, it's enough. I think it's fair to say that assessments are nowhere near trustworthy enough to tell us if these purposes are being accomplished.
The question of worth may be being answered another way: by liberal arts colleges that change their mission. David W. Breneman wrote in 1990 in "Are We Losing our Liberal Arts Colleges?" that:
My conclusion [...] is that the liberal arts college is in much greater peril than I thought it was, but not because it is failing financially and closing its doors.An updated discussion of this phenomenon can be found in "The Case of the Disappearing Liberal Arts College" at InsideHigherEd.com. Are market forces deprecating the traditional role of distribution requirements along with the lofty goals that traditional liberal arts colleges advertise?
Instead, it is surviving, but only by changing and becoming something else--for want of a better term, a small professional college.
The weightiest charge I think we can levy at gen ed is that it's broad but too shallow. We can argue that students aren't likely to retain much from a course or two on history or philosophy or chemistry. That after three or four years, the difference we have made is minimal. There is the romantic notion that a student who thought she wanted to be an engineer will get turned on to poetry because of a required distribution class, and change her whole life. But balancing those just-so tales is the two years and tens of thousands of dollars on the other side of the equation, which get paid whether or not a student has an epiphany.
In thinking back to my own freshman year, I guess I can sum up my liberal arts exposure (from SIU--not a liberal arts school) as: some courses were about as good as reading a decent book on the subject. Some were bad, and at least one turned out to be useful: my German class, because I married a German. All in all, I don't think the gen ed requirements did much except introduce me to college. The major program, on the other hand, set the course for the rest of my life.
If we were so bold as to assume for the sake of argument that the gen ed requirements are ultimately not worth the cost in time and money, then we could toss another third (electives) of the curriculum too, and reduce cost of a bachelor's by nearly two-thirds.
A hue and outcry from the academy against such speculation would include the charge that this reduces a program to merely vocational. To be sure, there are other arguments, such as need to broaden the mind beyond a narrow subject, create life-long learners, grow good thinkers and communicators, and so on. Let us be generous, then and assume that we only cut the curriculum in half. While we're fantasizing, we may as well dress up the program in the styles that are in vogue. Cast the searchlight of your imagination upon this scenario:
We'll call it minimum U. It's purely online, and offers programs in a tightly defined group of specialties that have solid career paths. Let's say math and computer science field, to be definite. You could use engineering or business instead. Before you scream "vocational," I should say that you could use philosophy as the subject too. It's certainly valuable, as demonstrated by the figures in the table above--you just have to figure out how to market it so you get students to enroll.
Min U has no gen ed requirements in the classical sense--just prerequisites that often appear in the "core" of such requirements, like basic math and communications skills. Students work at their own pace in learning communities toward milestones. Along the way they create portfolios of work that they own. Most students have jobs and take classes from home. The university fosters internships and connections between students and the workplace in the context of the discipline.
Students grow their way through a structured curriculum in their chosen area of study. The model of achievement in the big picture is:
- Knowing underlying facts
- Application of theory
- Creation of new theory
Students could graduate in as little as two years, but more commonly because of work schedules would take four. When they're finished they have a solid understanding of both the theoretical and practical knowledge in their field. They have a portfolio and a resume and connections within the field.
Let me close with the following thought: the attitude that a student brings to coursework matters a great deal. I would advance the notion that students are more engaged with a subject they have chosen to study than they are with stuff foisted upon them "for their own good." By harnessing that idea, one could remake a four-year degree into something that produces a more highly trained specialist, but without giving up the best parts of what general education is supposed to deliver.
*Figuring around 28K tuition at a mid-tier liberal arts school, less 34% discount = 18K, times one third of the curriculum times four years = 24K