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General Education Opens Door for New Ideas

 

A student who meant to follow her father’s wishes and become a doctor changed her major when she found a love of political science through a general education course. Another student took a philosophy course, became a double major, and now plans to go to graduate school in the subject.

The General Education Program is intended to ensure that all AU students are exposed to a world of academic thought that goes beyond the narrow goal of preparation for the careers they first imagine they want.

For some students, the experience is transforming. Others, like the author of a recent Eagle editorial calling for the program to be scrapped, charge it with rigidity and irrelevance.

How is the General Education Program doing at AU? What is it doing well, and what is less successful? Are there aspects that might be modified? Those are some of the questions Patrick Jackson is considering as the program’s new director. “The idea is to broaden your horizons—to become broader than what you would have come to college thinking you were going to study,” said freshman James O’Donnell, School of International Service (SIS), at an open meeting on General Education last week.

Nathan Wick ’08 expressed appreciation for the ways in which his General Education courses ended up relating to other courses in unexpected ways. The SIS senior found it exciting, for instance, to read Merchant of Venice in one course, learn about the Holocaust in another course, and be able to draw connections. Several students and an adjunct faculty member said they discovered their majors through the General Education Program.

But students also expressed frustration with aspects of AU’s “cluster” model, which some said was too rigid and others said didn’t go far enough in requiring students to experience subjects outside their majors. Jackson provided context by describing the two main models for the design of General Education programs: a “core” model, in which all students take designated courses deemed important for their education, and a “distribution requirement” model, in which students can simply take a “smorgasbord” of courses outside their major.

AU’s model is an “alloy,” Jackson said, offering “choice within limits.” The program has five broad curricular areas, such as Creative Arts and Natural Sciences, that all students must study. These areas, in turn, are divided into clusters, so that students take a series of courses in the same sequence.

For instance, to complete a sequence in Creative Arts, students decide at the outset whether they prefer to focus on the arts through practice or theory. Those who choose courses from a cluster called Understanding Creative Processes might end up taking a foundation course such as The Studio Experience and a second-level course such as The Artist’s Perspective: Painting. Those who prefer to look at art more theoretically look at the cluster called Understanding Creative Works, where the offerings include courses in art history, Shakespeare, African literature, and other topics.

While students said it was good to broaden their horizons, Wick noted that students typically pick courses that fulfill a major requirement, whether or not they really like or want that particular course. As a result, “I was able to get rid of six classes without broadening my horizons,” said the SIS senior, which he felt in retrospect was not a good thing.

Wick also said that the goal of cross-college diversity was not being met in practice, because students from particular schools and colleges tend to flock to the same courses.

Some faculty and students contended that small class sizes were imperative for General Education courses. But Jackson pointed out that, lacking “billions of dollars in endowment,” a mandate for small class sizes in General Education courses “is not going to happen.”

He said, though, that such methods as online discussions and blogging can be used to facilitate interaction and small group discussion. O’Donnell, the SIS freshman, said that he has found online discussions and blogs helpful.

Jackson said he is evaluating the program and its courses to see what changes might be needed, and where “a bit of housecleaning would be in order.”