Episode 6: General Education

Why do we have General Education and why is it so much a part of American higher education?

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everybody! I'm Steve Meredith, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education. I'm joined as always by the president of Southern Utah University, Scott L Wyatt. Hi, Scott. 

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve. How are you today?

Meredith: I'm good, thank you. Thanks for joining me. We're going to talk today about General Education, which is I think a rather American part of Higher Education, and one that you feel strongly about and one, honestly, that has in many ways fallen into disrepair and been a little bit on the back burner at most colleges and universities. 

Wyatt: Yeah. So one of the opportunities that I have is to work with global partners, if I can call them that, and we've got partner universities around the world. And because of these partnerships, I'm occasionally in Asia or Africa somewhere working with them on common goals, common programs. 

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: For example, we have a bunch of programs in China where the students take two years at the university in China and then they come over and do the last two years at Southern Utah University. And as a result of this, I've had a chance to see the way General Education is treated around the world and the answer is, mostly, it's only an American thing. We have wonderful partners, really high quality universities. For example, one in Asia where you can get a four year degree in cabin service. This is for flight attendants, and every class that his student takes is designed to help them become a flight attendant. It's a career-based technical kind of program and that's true for many, many programs all around the world. What's unique about an American higher education, one of the primarily unique things, is General Education. That we think that somebody who is majoring in engineering, or art, or education, or business, that they need to have this broad understanding. Which includes the arts and humanities and literature, writing, literacy in all kinds of areas and…

Meredith: Numeracy and so forth?

Wyatt: Yeah, we take this broad-based understanding and make that part of the degree. 

Meredith: Do you think that's peculiar to America because we so highly prize the university's role in producing citizens? Is that what it is? Is it preparation for a well-educated citizenry?

Wyatt: That's a big part of it. It's…part of it is - -  is that it creates a more creative person, a person that understands other cultures more. There's a variety of reasons and we could get into the history of how General Education evolved in America, but we probably don't have enough time today. Suffice it to say: it's one of the defining features of an American higher education. It's one of the things that we most prize. It's this…some might call it the liberal education, some might call it the broad-based foundational education or general education, but it's what helps us understand other peoples and cultures and ideas and informs our lives. It enriches everything about us, and what we're seeing is that this piece has taken a back seat. 

Meredith: It's started to erode in importance. 

Wyatt: And it's under threat. So I recently had a member of our State Legislature ask me this question. The question was, "If I show up to a biology class,"  - - hypothetically of course, because the legislator isn't going to biology, but probably his son or daughter is - -  "If I show up to a biology class or a history class or a political science class and there are five hundred students in the classroom so that there is no opportunity really to ask questions—it's just a lecture—why are you having the teacher, the faculty member, stand there and do this live? Why don't you just record it and play it at a time that's convenient for the student? Either way, there's no interaction. Both ways, it's a lecture. Only if it's recorded, the student can listen to it at her own convenience."

Meredith: And the room is available for something else and costs less…

Wyatt: And it costs us less because we don't have to have this…we don't have to keep building buildings. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Yeah. And then…and we might say, "Well, you know, it's live. That means that it…you know, if there's a current event or something happens then we can adjust the…we can adjust a little bit." And the answer is, "Yep, you could record this today and play it tomorrow and it would be just as current." And then the next question that I get from this legislator is, "And if one faculty member records it at one school and another one records it at another, and yet another, and another, and another…why aren't we just recording one? I mean, why don't we get in our entire state the very best historian and have that person record the class for everyone? Isn't that a lot more efficient? Isn't that going to save us a lot more money?" And my natural tendency, Steve, is to immediately get defensive and say, "Wow, you are completely missing the point!" But…but if I try to put myself in the legislator's shoes and try to really understand what he or she is trying to tell me—I've had this conversation now with several legislators—if I try to really understand what they're saying, it makes sense. 

Meredith: Right. They're not wrong in what they're saying.

Wyatt: If we have five hundred students in a classroom so that there's no meaningful opportunity for asking questions, why not just record it and let the student watch it when it's most convenient to the student in the student's home so that they don't have to require the construction of a new building to sit there?

Meredith: And a number of colleges and universities are doing just that. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Meredith: I mean, that's not all that unusual. 

Wyatt: I have experienced this in a class that was taught some years ago where the faculty member at a very prestigious university in America basically taught from lecture notes…basically delivered a beautiful, fantastic lecture every day for the whole semester. There was not a single question asked because the questions were all for some other time, for kind of a "once a week" with the teacher's assistant or graduate student assistant.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But the faculty member himself never permitted a question. And I think that those of us in higher ed need to pay attention to this. I think this is a criticism of us that is worth listening to. And the answer, the only answer that we can really give that's credible, is to say, "We are moving away from these auditorium, lecture hall, one faculty member and hundreds of students, to something that is more meaningful." Because if, in fact, you could record it and play it back then you probably should. So we're experimenting with a variety of kinds of General Education classes where we believe the outcomes will be substantially higher than just watching TV. And we're doing our very best—as you know, Steve—we're doing our very best to put our finest faculty members in small classrooms with small groups of students to give them a wonderful, integrated general education experience that isn't watching The History Channel, but rather, is great conversation pulling different disciplines together and building this mentoring connection between the expert and the student so that we all actually become learners together. 

Meredith: I think that's the Jumpstart program that you're referring to there at the end. We're going to feature the Jumpstart program in a subsequent podcast, but just generally, SUU puts so much emphasis and places so much importance on General Education that it's really interesting and, frankly, engaging for a faculty member to work here. Because we place emphasis where it is not often placed. 

Wyatt: Yes, and I actually…so General Education is one of the defining pieces—we call it General Education or foundational courses or liberal arts…whatever we call it—it's this fundamental piece of the higher education that stretches a student beyond the narrow field that she or he is studying. That if you're going to be an engineer, you're going to be a better engineer if you know something about the arts and something about humanities. You're going to be a better member of democracy if you know something about history and political science. You're going to be more successful in dealing with peoples of other cultures if we can help you understand those things. And we do that not through the engineering classes for an engineering student, but through this General Education program that's the fundamental piece, the bedrock, of and American higher education. We pride ourselves in preparing students to be productive members of society. We pride ourselves in preparing them for the democracy that…the form of democracy that we have, and that we're helping students learn about other cultures and ideas and people and that this is such a positive thing. We pride ourselves in all these things, but really for the last decades, we haven't shown that that's something that we care about because it's received the least amount of attention. And it's become what we've used to balance budgets and we've allowed majors to encroach in every area. There are a lot of majors where they don't have a choice of what General Education classes [they take] because all those classes are pre-requisites to something else. 

Meredith: That's right. 

Wyatt: And those students aren't getting this broad education at all. So I think, Steve, that we're actually at some risk in America. If we continue to teach General Education in large classroom halls where there isn't an opportunity for deep engagement, writing, a lot of questions, we're going to find ourselves with legislators like the ones that have talked to me. We're going to find ourselves with them pushing harder and harder with the power that they've got, and eventually we're going to see these classes be taught by one person, recorded at some place, somewhere, and we all listen to the same recording. And frankly, if we don't reengage with General Education and get it back to where it's supposed to be, we're going to deserve that outcome. 

Meredith: I know we're going to come back and talk about this in subsequent podcasts, but it's such an interesting topic. I'm glad we're broaching it. 
You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education with Scott Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. Thanks for listening, we'll be back again soon. Bye bye.