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College Programs Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All

Question: What would be\r\nyour ideal solution to the “problem of general education?"


Louis Menand:  Yes,\r\n general education, of course, are\r\nthe courses that every student’s required to take in order to graduate \r\nfrom\r\ncollege.  And most colleges that\r\nhave a general education requirement, so called, use a distribution \r\nmodel, I\r\nthink that’s what Yale uses, in which students have to take three \r\ncourses,\r\nusually, in each of the three divisions in the academy, natural science,\r\n social\r\nscience, and arts and humanities. \r\nAnd generally, they can take any three courses.  So\r\n that doesn’t really add up to a very\r\nprescriptive curriculum, obviously, because students can cherry-pick the\r\n courses\r\nthat they’re interested in, or the courses they think will be easy.


So a real general education model that is, say, one\r\n that I\r\nthink has some legitimacy is one that has requirements that actually are\r\n shaped\r\nby a rationale of the particular kinds of knowledge that students are \r\ngoing to\r\nneed.  Columbia has one, Harvard\r\nhas one, Stanford and Princeton have them, obviously Chicago, St. \r\nJohn’s, they\r\nhave a Great Books curriculum, and so on. \r\nSo, those are the models that are available.


My own view is that the general education \r\ncurriculum that a\r\ncollege picks has to be appropriate for the kind of student body that it\r\nhas.  I don’t think the same\r\ncurriculum fits every student body. \r\nNow, that’s a little bit of a circular proposition, because \r\nColumbia has\r\nthis Great Books curriculum, it’s called Literature and Humanities in \r\nthe\r\nContemporary Civilization, and they’ve had the same, roughly the same\r\ncurriculum for about 50 years.  So\r\nwhen students apply to Columbia, they already know, they’re already \r\nselecting\r\nthat curriculum, that’s something that they want when they apply to\r\ncollege.  If you were to impose\r\nsuch a curriculum at Harvard or Yale, students would object, probably, \r\non the\r\ngrounds that they’re being required to do something that they basically \r\ndidn’t\r\nopt for when they applied.  So\r\nColumbia kind of gets away with it because it’s grandfathered in, so to \r\nspeak,\r\nto the institution.


I think at a place like Harvard, our experience, I \r\nwas\r\ninvolved with, at various stages, in trying to implement a new general\r\neducation curriculum, our experience was that Harvard’s all about\r\nspecialization, that’s not just true of the professori, it’s also true \r\nof a lot\r\nof the undergraduates, too, and they come, they kind of know what they \r\nwant to\r\ndo, they select it because they have a strong aptitude for something in\r\nparticular.  So to try to have a\r\nkind of one-size-fits-all general education curriculum for them will \r\nprobably\r\nnot fly.  You know, you have to\r\nhave students wanting to take the courses, otherwise you’re not going, \r\nthey’re\r\nnot going to be very effective.


So Harvard has something that manages, I think, to \r\nprovide a\r\nlot of options for students, but still fairly prescriptive about the \r\nkinds of\r\nsubjects that the courses ought to cover. \r\nJust started, the new curriculum has just begun this year, it \r\nactually\r\nseems to have gotten off to a pretty good launch.


Question: To what extent\r\nare curricula shaped by “consumers” (parents of students)?


Louis Menand:  Yeah,\r\n zero.  Because, I mean, ideally, zero.  Because the way universities operate is the decision \r\nabout\r\nwhat students need for the degree are... is the decision made by the\r\nfaculty.  Should not be made by any\r\nother group, administrators, trustees, parents, students, and so on.  Obviously input is helpful to faculty\r\nin trying to come up with a curriculum, but ultimately it’s the \r\nfaculty’s job\r\nto know what students need to know. \r\nMake a decision about it and present it.


The difficulty with coming up with a curriculum is \r\nmainly\r\nthat faculty aren’t trained to think in terms of general education.  They’re trained to think in terms of\r\ntheir own discipline, or their specialty. \r\nSo when they’re asked, what are your views about what everybody \r\nought to\r\nknow, it’s not something that they’ve ever really given thought to, it’s\r\n not\r\npart of their training.  They have\r\nviews, but they tend to be quite eccentric and quite different from one\r\nanother.  So getting faculties to\r\ncome to a consensus about something that they’ve never really thought \r\nabout or\r\nhad to worry about in their careers before can be a rather slow process \r\nand a\r\nlong process, it certainly was the case at Harvard, and it’s the case \r\nwith most\r\nof the general education curricula that I know of, it takes four or five\r\n years\r\njust to get everybody on board with one idea.

The "problem of general education" haunts any college trying to design a core curriculum, but standardizing across schools is a poor solution.

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