“Which Core Matters More?” (featuring Mark Higbee)

Friend of the site and fellow faculty member Mark Higbee alerted me to an article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that features both an interview and images of him and some of his students.  It’s called “Which Core Matters More?” and it’s behind the CHE firewall (the link here will prompt EMU-types to login to get the whole thing; if you’re on campus, it’ll just pop up).  Other than the pictures, the part featuring Higbee comes later in the article where he discusses a “Reacting to the Past” approach for teaching history.

The article claims to be about a “new” debate on the direction of general education and/or “core curriculum” in higher education, but actually, the debate is not new at all.  It boils down to the value of curriculums that see the benefits of process and “critical thinking” versus a return to the basics and specific content.  That’s a debate (generally characterized by liberals versus conservatives) that’s been around for a long long time.

My own thinking about general education is shaped by the paradox of being a writing teacher in an English department.

The one (almost) universal component in general education in this country is first year writing (e.g. “comp and rhet”):  even innovative and “cutting edge” general education curriculums (like the one at Portland State which this article discusses in some detail) require all students to satisfy freshmen writing.  The same is true at EMU.  I have complicated thoughts and feelings about this, but I generally think it is better for students to take more courses that involve writing rather than less.

On the other hand, we have a general education program now at EMU where students never have to take any literature course if they don’t want to because they can satisfy that area of the gen ed by taking courses in history, communications, philosophy, and so forth.  I don’t want to take anything away from those other areas of study since they too are obviously important.  Still, it seems reasonable to me that if we’re going to have a general education program at all, we ought to require students to take at least one literature course in order to earn a bachelors degree.



23 thoughts on ““Which Core Matters More?” (featuring Mark Higbee)

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Steve – it’s not a general education program without a literature course. I remember my literature courses (note the plural) with fondness, especially my French Literature in Translation course.

    I do have to add, however, that it is also not a general education program without at least one course in algebra (MATH 105).

    Patrick Koehn
    Physics and Astronomy


  2. Considering that I had to spend the first week of law school wasting time going over basic political science themes like Separation of Powers and the Constitution (and on a basic level, not the actual legal education level in Constitutional Law courses) since at least half of my peers did not have a grasp on those concepts – MORE POLITICAL SCIENCE AND CIVICS!

    We already fail at teaching social literacy, government structures, and citizenship/civics in our K-12 school system, so the colleges need to pick up the slack in the mean time. Otherwise, we’re going to have generations of intelligent students who can read and write well, but don’t know how our government functions or what makes an argument fluff or fact.

    I’ll throw logic and reasoning skills into the mix too. I don’t see why we can’t weave these into every class in some way – more persuasive writing assignments in a writing class, more reading newspaper articles or treatises from important folks like Locke and Paine in literature classes. Again, this should be done K-12, but it’s not, so colleges need to take on the responsibility.


  3. However you view this debate, Mark’s words are a terrific distillation of a crucial question: “If a professor stands at the front of the classroom and talks about Plato, it doesn’t mean the students are learning Plato. For far too long we’ve been arguing about what students should learn. We don’t think enough about how they actually learn.”

    I attended a REACT class and wrote about it, and can attest to the level of student engagement. http://www.emich.edu/focus_emu/032310/reactingtothegame.html


  4. I very much like the Chronicle’s account of this debate, and appreciate the inclusion of the Reacting to the Past perspective. But the class that the photographer came too was one in which students were actively using Plato’s Republic to argue questions that faced ancient Athens in 403BC.

    Geoff’s account of the Reacting class he visited captures the method’s strengths in action: engaged, active learning by all or nearly all students in the class. Student centered. It is a pedagogy not meant to replace any standard commonly practiced teaching method, but it surely can enliven a campus by adding one dynamic new pedagogy to what students encounter.


  5. The course I teach should be on the required list, whatever it happens to be in any given semester. I think that’s how most of these arguments go.


  6. I will echo Patrick Koehn’s support of literature and college level mathematics as necessary components of general education.

    But I will go further. College general education should not include remedial education. General Education serves an important purpose: a well educated college graduate. The precious time given to gen ed should not be wasted on remediation. I consider EMU’s quantitative reasoning and freshman composition in that category (sorry, colleagues, but I do).

    EMU’s General Education program has some things right. But allowing incoming students to “test out of” general education classes is simple evidence that our Gen Ed does remediation, and that is a big mistake. A mistake we should fix.


    • Well, one person’s “remediation” is another person’s “foundational” course is another person’s “example of a discipline that ought to be included in the gen ed.” There are a whole host of courses that students take at almost every university in this country– not just the EMU-type universities in the U.S. but also the U of M and MSUs and even prestigious private universities in the U.S.– that arguably belong in secondary schools. But that speaks to a different problem then Gen Ed per se.

      And I don’t want to take up a whole lot of time here explain as to why I don’t think that first year writing is not “remedial,” nor do I want to go into a lot of detail about how labeling any college class as “remedial” suggests that the people who take it and the people who teach it are “lesser beings.” All I will say is that at EMU, we don’t teach first year writing as a course making of for past failings. Rather, we teach it as an introduction to writing in college and beyond.


  7. The problem, in my estimation, with EMU’s gen ed program, like most of others in the country, is that it reflects a division academic knowledge into a variety of slices — it’s a carving up of turf. All bits of turf students should learn.
    But it is not based on a careful assessment of how students learn, or what courses they should take in what order to learn what will best prepare them for success in other college courses.

    Most EMU students, the FTIACs, don’t make it thru the Gen Ed program. Most Gen Ed courses are boring to most students taking them. That’s a double indictment of our Gen Ed program as being structured inappropriately. Further, most of our “general education” requirements can be fulfilled in such a wide variety of ways, there’s not much “general” about it. It does, however, have hundreds of truly excellent courses within it. The Gen Ed program at EMU is a menu driven distribution requirement, not a coherent plan for student learning outcomes.


  8. High school, grades 10 – 12 are where students learn how to write for college. Note, I am all for rhetoric *at the college level*. Study of _Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric_ would be a fabulous undergraduate class.


    • Classical English Rhetoric for gen-ed, for first year college students at EMU. Really. Really? Susan, have you taught freshmen recently?

      Often, what happens in first year writing classes is a bit of “unlearning” in that a lot of what students learn in high school about what it means to write in college is wrong. And again, even if students do come into college knowing something about writing in college, they obviously extend that knowledge in the classes they take in college.

      Besides, this is true about just about everything in college, isn’t it? Students are supposed to have learn math, history, science, and other “gen ed” issues. I mean, if they satisfied algebra in high school, it’s just more of the same in college, isn’t it? Or if gen ed algebra is anything like gen ed writing, maybe not.


      • This reminds me of what I believe to be the fundamental flaw in most gen ed programs: that it forms the foundation for success in college. Well, sort of. At emu only two areas actually do that–the two that I call remedial.


      • Farnsworth is very narrow. But so was Patrick’s French lit and my history of 18th century intellectual thought. Those are in different kind of gen ed than foundational. They are in a gen ed that is for producing a liberal arts graduate.


  9. Note, remedial does not equal lesser. If I were to go into a skilled trade, I would need remedial education first: I have not taken any voc ed nor shop classes. Remedial does NOT equal lesser or stupid It means getting prepared for the program. what is high school for if college prep does not prepare for cpllege?


  10. Two observations. Many or most of the EMU students who’ve passed their required composition course cannot, or will not, write a decent paragraph in subsequent classes. Maybe something is missing from our curriculum.

    Second: It’s easy for faculty to specify very detailed, important things that students should learn or know, across the board. But that’s a pointless endeavor, except for within majors. We don’t seriously consider what does and does not succeed at motivating students to work hard in what students often call “general” classes.

    What is high school? For too many students, it’s a boring and pointless series of things to “sit through”. Not always the students fault either.


  11. One more point. Ok, two more points. First, I am ok with giving college credit for high school material. It is outrageous that and parents have to pay for what they should have learned earlier. But it is a quick fix to a real problem — a quick fix using what we understand and know how to do … teach. A better solution to underprepared students


    • And second (sorry for the weirdness in my replies — typing on my upgraded Droid stinks), I long ago lost the battle over what I believe gen ed at EMU should be by an overwhelming faculty. Just because I lost, though, does not mean I was *wrong*! 😉


  12. Well, without going into the discussion about the pros and cons of gen ed, three observations about the “cannot write a decent paragraph” argument here. First, the definition of a “decent paragraph” is obviously a variable that is based on all kinds of different things. If someone is interested in something, there’s a much better chance that the writer will be able to write a good paragraph; if not, not so much.

    Second, you can either be assured or horrified that students today generally write as poorly or as well as students did 100 or more years ago. There have been some interesting studies on this, notably Andrea Lunsford’s and Robert Connors’ late 80s study on this. Basically, they came up with a list of what they labeled the “top 20” errors in writing, and they also saw the same patterns in contemporary student writers and student writers at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries.

    Third, as I am fond of saying to faculty who complain about students coming out of first year writing, you should have seen them at the beginning of the semester. 😉


  13. It is easy to find areas in our Gen Ed program that are odd.

    I teach in a department that used to have a course required for all undergraduates. We lost it in the Gen Ed transition, while a few others got to keep their precious courses. Personally, I think a foundational class in American Government (AG) is just as important as a public speaking class, a writing class or a math class, but as Susan says, we lost that battle years ago. (I still am appalled at the argument, made by one former administrator, that citizenship could just as easily be learned from an art class as from a political science class.) On the plus side, the quality of discussion within my AG classes has improved somewhat over the years now that students opt in (rather than being forced in) to it. Then again, under the old system I used to have many, many students who told me that they hadn’t wanted to take AG in the beginning, yet they found out it was a pretty useful/cool/interesting topic after all. Today, citizenship and understanding of one’s government system are optional. That’s scary from a big picture perspective. We wonder where so much American ignorance comes from?! (“I want lower taxes but more gov’t services!” “Public universities should get their state allocations slashed but my kid’s tuition had better not go up!”)

    One perverse incentive of the Gen Ed program as currently designed is that many departments rushed to make practically all of their 100 and 200 level classes “Gen Ed” in order to bolster enrollments and credit hour production. Some departments figured out that they can have a GE class in practically every category, thereby allowing students to take more departmental classes. This ends up pitting departments against each other, competing for GE enrollments. (unhealthy) At present time one can get credits in six of the nine Gen Ed categories from my department. Some departments have gone one better and created multiple course prefixes so that they can allow students to complete even more Gen Eds within their department.

    The rules structure how the game is played (hey – an American Gov’t concept!) and so we play the game that way, but from a pedagogical standpoint, it is nonsense.

    All of that said – I really disliked the “old” Gen Ed and see a lot of improvement in the “new” Gen Ed. While some course in the old GE requirements were quite logical, others were not. Some of the categories were stodgy (thinking of how the multicultural requirement was set up). And there wasn’t any coherent underlying sense of why or how that GE experience helped students succeed in college – or why and how it gave them a liberal arts foundation – to justify the old GE’s existence. Students disliked it and found it largely irrelevant. I wasn’t here when the old GE was formed, but I’d be curious to know the reasoning behind some of those decisions.

    One could, I suppose, say some of the same things about our current Gen Ed, but the broad menu/distribution approach at least allows for students to pick from a range of topics (though maybe too broad a range in some instances, I’ll admit) that might have some kind of appeal to them. Also, I like the departmental “writing intensive” requirement in the current Gen Ed.

    If it were entirely within my power, here’s what I’d do to change our current Gen Ed requirements:
    1. I’d return American Gov’t and one course in American History to the requirements.
    2. I’d return one Lit course to the requirements.
    3. I’d limit the number of courses in a couple of categories, notably the “Global Awareness” category.
    4. I’d require everybody to take Math 105 (or higher) and not a class in a non-math dept (possible exception for Computer Science). I say that as someone who routinely teaches a non-math QR class, too.
    5. I’d require people to fulfill those “Knowledge of the Discipline” requirements in such a way that you can’t use two courses from the same Dept (rather than the current focus on course prefix) to fulfill a given “Knowledge” area.
    6. I’d cut back on the number of courses that can be used in more than one Gen Ed category at a time.
    7. I would look more closely at the ever-widening array of ways to earn LBC credit, and exceptions to the LBC rules, some of which are a bit of a joke.

    That, and two bucks will buy you a cup of coffee in the Student Center.


    • Licorice,

      You may be heartened to know (or perhaps you already do) that some people here at EMU are writing a module for the GenEd math class (Math 110) that has a healthy dose of American Government topics. Send me email and I’ll give you the details.

      Andrew Ross
      Math dept.


  14. I pretty much agree with all of this too, licorice, and one of the disappointments I have about the gen ed is that there was never any opportunity for reveiw and revision– it just kind of went into effect and that was that. Well, maybe if we ever hire a new provost….


  15. There’s an old joke about a top academic administrator at a university, being confronted directly by God, and given his choice of two major challenges; the one he picks, he must solve.

    The challenges are 1) bring peace to the Middle East, and 2) design a General Education program that will satisfy students and faculty and trustees.

    The academic leader pauses for two seconds, and then says to God, “well, give me that map of Middle East.”


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