The heart of curricular reform at Furman must be reform of general education. Let us begin there; later we will consider other parts of the curriculum that need modification.
Any array of (so-called) “general education” courses, including Furman’s, is the expression both of institutional politics and of an underlying educational conception. As we consider significant change in our general education requirements (GER), the educational conception should come to the fore: neither the politics of the past nor the departmental interests of the present should determine the future of general education at Furman. The GER is a community interest (indeed, a community good) and should be shaped by an educational philosophy reflecting the mission of the college as a whole.1
What is the educational conception underlying Furman’s present GER? It can be summarized in a single, traditional (and actually quite honorable) question: “What is the knowledge most worth having?” Our current GER tries to provide every Furman student with the knowledge we consider necessary to the educated citizen of the new century. Such knowledge may be composed primarily of facts and theories (the kind of knowledge provided by courses in the social sciences, in history, and in religious studies, for example), or it may consist primarily in the acquisition of complex skills (as in courses in languages and mathematics). Either way, the transmission of particular knowledge (information and skill) is the basic intention of our current GER.2
The result might be characterized, sharply but not unfairly, as “high school on steroids,” or (more charitably) “high school done right.” Furman’s present GER mirrors, by and large, the same body of skill and information one would expect in a good high school curriculum: courses in history, languages, mathematics, laboratory science, social science, composition and rhetoric, English and American literature, the arts, physical education, etc. Because—one supposes—we cannot trust our first-year students actually to have been furnished with the knowledge they most need, we will therefore provide it. Public school “general education” is broken; our GER must be, therefore, essentially remedial.
For at least two reasons, this conception is faulty. First, while it may have been true in 1967 (the date our present GER was adopted [the changes since have been marginal]) that Furman students were unprepared for genuinely college-level work, that is certainly not the case today. Our admissions picture is much different from what it was in 1967 (or 1977, or 1987), and in the past three or four years, the quality of our admitted students (measured by the usual standards) has risen even more significantly, a trend we expect (and hope) to continue. We are not, on the whole, now admitting students who need significant remediation. Many of them have taken two or three or four advanced-placement courses (and bring that AP credit to their Furman transcripts); some of them have spent a large part of their senior year taking courses at a local college. Increasingly, our students come to us ready and eager for the kinds of challenges, intellectual and otherwise, that first-rate college work provides.
Second, even for those students whose high-school experiences have been less than ideal, giving them one more chance at a history course, or a chemistry course, or a math course, or an English course, is unlikely to make much real difference. Not only is the Furman GER largely unneeded as remediation; it is also largely ineffective in that aim. Of course we wish our first-year students to know more than they do on arrival, but can we honestly claim that our GER reliably removes that deficit? If they don’t know much about, say, the outcome and the importance of the European wars of religion in the 17th century, can we be sure that HST 11 will eliminate their ignorance? If they don’t know how to use the semicolon, or how to construct a persuasive argument, or how to describe the Darwinian revolution, can we be confident that ENG 11 or PHL 20 or BGY 16 will remedy their lacks? My point is not to pick on those particular courses; I respect them, and I respect those who teach them. My point is that we tend to fantasize about the result of taking such courses: if our students hear one more time about the Thirty-Years War, or the semicolon, or the importance of evidence, or speciation through natural selection, then the scales will fall from their eyes and they’ll never forget what they’ve learned. Or so we pretend to believe.
I think we need to move away from the model of general education at Furman as “high school done right.” We need an underlying educational conception of our GER that makes it a distinctively collegiate experience, an experience that both exhilarates and challenges our best first-year students. If the question that motivates the present GER is “What is the knowledge most worth having?”, the question for the new GER ought to be “What are the habits of mind and heart most worth cultivating?” We need to move from conceiving the GER as providing a base of information and skill to conceiving it as fostering intellectual and ethical sensibility. Sensibility, as I understand it here, is the capacity for individual responsiveness; it is a person’s ability to size up, accurately and justly, the reality that confronts her and to respond to that reality with informed intelligence, with imagination, and with ethical discrimination grounded in self-knowledge and self-trust.
Another way to put my point is to say that upon arrival at college one’s educational aim ought to shift from socialization to individuation. Pre-college education has mostly been about making the student an intelligent member of her community: equipping her with the knowledge and skills necessary to function as a part of that community; giving her a sense the community’s history, its institutions, its defining ambitions, and its place in the world; educating her in those ethical, social, aesthetic, and intellectual disciplines that the community finds most worth cultivating. Such socialization doesn’t stop with graduation from high school, of course, but college education—especially in that component we call “general education”—should have another, and in some ways quite different, ambition as well. College is about taking a reasonably socialized community member and helping her to find a life of her own. Part of that is done by the student’s commitment to a major, since one of the fundamental expressions of individuality in our culture is meaningful, for-pay work; and college education, especially (though not exclusively) through the major, is a way in which such work is identified and prepared for. But an important part of individuation is the cultivation of a distinctive approach to one’s life, whatever one’s eventual job: the cultivation of a genuinely individual way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and acting. What we most admire and cherish in our fellow humans is just that individuality. We want, for ourselves and for others, a mode of life that is not routine, boring, and common; we aspire to freshness of perception and depth of response. We admire those who can see things in novel ways, who recognize possibilities for good (and for evil) most of us are blind to; we cherish those whose life bears a stamp of originality, who speak with their own voices and do not parrot the words of convention and cliché.3
To ask, in the context of collegiate general education, “What are the habits of mind and heart most worth cultivating?” is to ask, “What are the habits of mind and heart that tend toward individuation?” It is to ask, “How do we educate so as to foster a person of profound and individual sensibility, a person with the kind of intelligence and imagination that will shape a future different from, and (we hope) better than, the predictable extension of the past?” Such a sensibility ought to be, I believe, the aim of Furman’s GER.4 The first year or two of college should not be “high school done right.”
What would such a reformed GER look like, and how would it cohere with other required courses? Below is my proposal for a new set of Furman academic requirements, including a general education (GE) requirement. Note that I distinguish GE courses from distribution requirement (DR) courses. I do believe that part of one’s college experience should be given to exploring different academic disciplines in order to understand their particular ways of seeing things; thus there should be a number of “Introduction to X” courses that students should be required to take. But GE courses should not be “Introduction to X” courses. Why? Because “Introduction to X” courses focus, appropriately enough, on discipline-specific information and skills. They are intended to give the student a glimpse of what the world looks like as conceived within a particular disciplinary matrix. GE courses, on the other hand, are not intended to furnish a professional (or proto-professional) point of view; they aim at getting the student to cultivate particular habits of mind and heart. They intend to aid the student’s individuation as an intellectual and ethical being. Important as it is that a student be given various “Introductions to X,” to do so is not the best way to deepen sensibility. So GE courses and DR courses should not be the same.
A. General Education Requirement: 4 courses.
Each of these GE courses would in some significant way emphasize the three features Martha Nussbaum elaborates in Cultivating Humanity: (1) Socratic rationality, (2) world citizenship, and (3) the narrative imagination.5 (There’s no expectation that each such course would emphasize each element equally.) Each GE course would require intensive reading and writing (this would be the Furman version of “writing across the curriculum”), and each would be a small-group discussion format with no more than 15 students enrolled. Interdisciplinary approaches would be encouraged. GE courses would not carry a departmental prefix, and they could not count toward a major (either as major courses or as prerequisites or as allied courses). There would need to be a GER director, or committee of directors, to make sure the GER goals were being appropriately met in a given course. A student would have to satisfy the GER by the end of her second year at Furman.
Any faculty member at FU could propose a GE course. (We might even have the requirement that every faculty member propose at least one GE course every year.) The expectation would be that one would propose courses that engage one’s professional expertise (and obsessions) but that also would be interesting and available to those students who won’t end up majoring in one’s specialty. For example, a psychologist might propose a GE course on the cultural impact of contemporary psychopharmacology: “Better than Well: The Impact of SSRI’s on Contemporary American Life.” An economist or a mathematician might show how economic/statistical methods are changing our conceptions of how to measure performance, reading Michael Lewis’s recent book Moneyball as one of the examples: “Baseball as a Way of Knowing: Statistical Representations of Performance in Business and in Life.” A religion professor might propose a course on contemporary uses of the book of Job, showing how it illuminates the kind of national and personal soul-searching that followed 9/11: “Terrorism, Tribulation, and Suffering: Job at Ground Zero.” A geologist might propose a course on the depletion of natural resources, perhaps focusing on replacements for fossil fuels: “$25 a Gallon? The End of Oil and the Search for New Energy.” A philosopher or a computer scientist (or both!) might propose a course on how computer modeling of the brain is changing our conception of what it means to be human: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better: Can Machines Outthink Humans?” And so on, and so on. With an alert, energetic faculty, I would think every year we’d have more GE courses proposed than we could actually offer.
As I’ve said, while these courses would certainly use the professional expertise of the faculty teaching them, their point is not to create a new generation of professionals. Their point is to encourage clear, precise, informed, imaginative, and ethically sensitive thinking in the students who take them. Their point is to begin to help the students to think for themselves, to think—with intellectual rigor and with ethical intensity—about topics that repay such thinking. Sensibility rather than knowledge; individuation rather than socialization: this is the proper model for GE at Furman.6
B. Distribution Requirement: 5 Courses (with at least one from each division).7
These could well be “Introduction to X” courses; they would carry a regular departmental prefix (plus they would be designated as DR courses); and they could count as major courses (and as prerequisites and as allied courses for majors). The DR would have to be completed by the end of the student’s third year. It would broaden her exposure to various fields of knowledge, thus preventing too much specialization and keeping alive that aspect of the liberal ideal. In addition, since no particular course would be required, we’d avoid the turf battles that would otherwise wreck (or at least poison) any substantial attempt at curricular reform. We would thus be agreeing that exposure to diverse kinds of knowledge/ways of knowing is a good, without specifying any as “the knowledge most worth having.”
C. Foreign Language Requirement: (no more than) 3 courses (and many students would take fewer than 3).
I’d leave this as it presently is, except that no student with more than 3 years of a single foreign language in high school would be required to take a foreign language course at Furman. Any student with 3 years of a single foreign language in high school would automatically be placed in 21 or above. Any student with 2 years of a single foreign language in high school would automatically be placed in 15 or above. Placement testing will be used only to place students higher than the required placements stated above.8
D. Senior Departmental Experience: 1 Course in the major
As a part of each major I’d require of seniors an academic experience that would encourage reflection on the major in its relation to other academic disciplines. In many, perhaps most, departments, such reflection will take the form of a seminar; I leave it open that some departments might find other ways to accomplish this goal. In my proposal this senior departmental requirement is, I admit, less well defined than the others; the crucial idea is that every student, having completed a major, be encouraged to step back from its particular way of seeing the world and to reflect on its connections to (and discontinuities with) other such ways of seeing. The focus of the senior experience should be both integrative (“This is the state of the art today.”) and self-critical (“Here are the ways our discipline must be complemented by other interpretive systems.”) I wish I could be clearer about this; I lack a good model of such an experience to exhibit.
That’s it.9 After these four sets of requirements (and perhaps a rule or two to deal with disadvantages #1 and #2 below), I’d let students follow their noses (with, I hope, some good advice from faculty advisors).
E. Departmental Honors Programs
Although I would not make it a requirement (as described in sections A-D above), my ideal curriculum would offer students in every academic major the option of trying for an honors degree. Only seniors with a certain GPR within the major could try for honors, and each department would specify for itself the kind of project that such a degree would require. I assume that for most departments an honors degree would require a substantial research project plus an oral exam conducted by faculty from within and without the department of the major. (It might be that students trying for honors would enroll in a credit course called ‘Honors’ while working on the project. The course would be graded Pass/Fail, with some of the Pass students being granted an honors degree.) I further assume that the college would specify some overall requirements so that high standards for honors degrees be upheld. (Perhaps, comparable to the requirements of PBK, only a certain percentage of majors in a given year could be granted an honors degree by a department.) The honors degree should be recognized on the transcript and on the diploma, and note should be taken in the commencement program.
The details can, of course, be modified. The important thing is to offer this sort of enrichment (another facet of “engaged learning”) to those students who want it.
F. Advantages and Disadvantages of This Curriculum
1. The GER would be motivated by a clear, coherent, and distinctively collegiate educational vision. The GER would be, in the clearest and best sense of the phrase, “engaged learning.” We would be expressing our commitment to such engagement in the very center of our curriculum.
2. The GER would shrink. In fact, the number of required courses overall would shrink. Right now the number of courses we require is right at 50% of our graduation requirement; under my proposal, it would drop to about 33%. If you think that’s too low, add a course to the GER and/or the DR. My own ideal for a liberal arts education would be: 33% required; 33% major; and 33% elective.
3. We would no longer be trying to do two quite different things in courses such as PSY 21: to offer an introduction to the discipline and to offer a general education experience. Both the introduction-to-discipline experience and the GE experience would benefit from the separation of GE courses from DR courses.
4. No departments would have a guaranteed slice of the GER; no departments would not have a guaranteed slice of the GER. All departments would be encouraged to offer GE courses. In the same way, all departments would be encouraged to offer DR courses.
5. No GE courses would count as major courses. This would be a clear indication that we think of GE as a good thing in itself, not just an adjunct to what’s “really important.” In this way we would go some distance toward undercutting our students’ present impatience with the GER; they would see it as having a distinctive educational rationale.
6. No turf battles: any course that meets the GER vision (as administered by the GER director[s]) can be offered as a GE course. Ditto for DR courses.
7. Specially designed GE courses (e.g., those Nussbaum discusses from Scripps, St. Lawrence, etc.) tend to get tired over time; it’s hard to keep a single conception fresh and energetic as the generations pass. Since my system envisages lots of different GE courses, proposed by lots of different faculty members, and changing naturally over time, the courses will stay fresh. As one’s intellectual obsessions change, one’s GE course topics will change. (The GE courses I would propose now would certainly not be the courses I would have proposed 34 years ago.)
8. GE courses would not be “high school done right.” They would give the beginning student, hungry for college, a taste of what a distinctively collegiate educational experience would be.
1. With fewer required courses, students will be tempted (and in some cases pressured) to take more and more courses in the major. Steady application of institutional will could solve this problem. But do we have that will?
2. With fewer required courses, students will be tempted to do second (and third?) majors. Steady application of institutional will could solve this problem. But do we have that will?
3. “This will mean that a Furman student might graduate without having a math course!” Or a history course! Or a religion course! Or a HES course! Or a philosophy course! Etc., etc. Right, but this objection harks back to the “knowledge most worth having” model for the GER, a model I suggest needs replacing. Moreover, once one starts down the road of saying, “My courses are more important than your courses and must therefore be required for graduation,” the outcome is both predictable and disheartening. Turf battles leave everyone bloodied, even the bystanders, and they are not the proper way to resolve significant educational disagreements. Nor should our GER be the result of compromise in such turf battles.
4. “But are you not saying that foreign language courses are ‘more important’ than others, since you preserve the foreign language requirement largely as it stands?” I take the point, and maybe I should just bite the bullet by quoting my hero Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But in fact I don’t think of the foreign language requirement as a part of general education; I think of it as a legitimate educational requirement (for a liberal arts college like Furman) on a par with the general education requirement and the distribution requirements set out above. I think it was always a mistake for Furman to think of the foreign language requirement as a part of general education. (That it was thought of that way was the result of thinking of GE in terms of “the knowledge most worth having.”) I conceive the foreign language requirement as an institutional necessity, predicated on our institutional identity: I cannot imagine a decent liberal arts college that doesn’t offer significant instruction in the major modern and classical languages and literatures; yet I cannot see how such instruction can be preserved (at Furman) without a requirement to underwrite the faculty positions required. I don’t think that’s true for any other central component of liberal education at Furman. Chemistry departments and philosophy departments and math departments and English departments don’t (at present, at Furman) need any such institutional props. But would there be a Latin faculty, or a Chinese faculty, or a German faculty, at Furman without some sort of language requirement? I wish I thought the answer was yes, but I don’t.10 And could we be a decent liberal arts college without such faculties? Certainly not. So the language requirement, in some form, has got (for the moment, anyway) to remain.
Of course there are problems I’m sure I haven’t thought of, but this seems to me a solid basis of what the curriculum at Furman should be. What’s wrong with it?
1. I do not mean that this mission is already determinate and clear, say in some document adopted by the trustees or in some tradition honored by the community. No, the meaning of the college’s mission is continually being expressed, refined, and redefined in our conversations about that mission, to which conversations our present curricular study (and even this small document) are contributions.
2. I do not say that our present GER courses intend to do nothing but transmit information. That is false. But I do believe that such transmission is the dominant common element in most of the GER courses we presently offer, and I further assert that the structure of those courses—what they are called and how they are arranged and taught (and, perhaps most importantly, how we test and grade our students in them)—creates in students the impression that at Furman “general education” means “more of the stuff you need to know but don’t.” In some important ways, the student perception of our GER is as important as the reality actually found in some of its courses: if they perceive it as “more of the same,” then it (largely) will be, no matter our efforts.
3. The distinction between socialization and individuation (a distinction not always expressed in those particular words) has, of course, a long history in American culture and educational theory. I think of its fount as Emerson’s great essay of 1841, “Self-reliance.” The distinction is also invoked in a recent essay by Richard Rorty, “Education as Socialization and as Individuation,” in R. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 114-126. Because of Furman’s history, its location, and its long connection to South Carolina Baptists, our college has been slow in coming to see the importance of the distinction and has been reluctant to acknowledge a fundamental commitment to individuation. Socialization, especially of a sophisticated sort (“preparing our students for the real world”), has always been easier to affirm, since it seems less threatening and more “useful” to our various constituent communities. (No doubt this emphasis is connected to our original task of preparing an educated clergy for South Carolina Baptists; mostly we have simply extended the range of that sort of vocationalism.) Given our renewed commitment to excellence as a liberal arts college, a commitment spurred by our (recent, in historical terms) separation from the South Carolina Baptist Convention, it is propitious for us shift our focus in the direction of individuation. As I hear it, our sometimes-maligned and sometimes-mocked slogan “engaged learning” is explicitly Emersonian in intent, thus saving it from the banality it skirts. We wish, as a college, to engage our students, through their academic work, in their own self-formation. We seek for them more than just integration into the world as it is; we want them to transform that world by transforming—“engaging”—themselves. For Emerson, as for Plato, self and world are inextricably linked: their transformation is, always, one and the same activity.
4. Please note that I’m not saying that fostering individuation is only the aim of the
5. This part of my proposal needs the most work, I think. Although I’m strongly attracted to the three aims Nussbaum elucidates in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Higher Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), I’m not yet fully convinced that all of them are sufficiently tightly geared to those habits of mind and heart that foster individuation. I’m most uncertain about what she calls “global citizenship.” Is there a close connection between such citizenship and Emersonian self-reliance? It’s hard for me to see how individuation could proceed without a commitment to Socratic rationality and without the kind of appreciation for personal and cultural difference cultivated by the narrative imagination; I’m not so sure that global citizenship is as closely tied to individuation as they are. (Part of my problem is that I’m not sure exactly what Nussbaum means by the phrase.) In another vein, I’m also worried that Nussbaum’s three aims might have a hidden “humanistic bias,” and I certainly don’t want the humanities division to become the primary home of GER. I welcome collegial help here. Is there a better way to specify those concrete educational aims that foster individuation and thus should be the foci of GER courses? If one were to keep Socratic rationality and the narrative imagination, is there some third that would form a better trinity than hers? Note, of course, that even if one doesn’t like the Nussbaum trinity, or doesn’t share my commitment to Emersonian individuation, the overall structure of the revision I propose—e.g., the separation of GE courses from DR courses—is not necessarily destroyed. Perhaps there is some other way to specify a distinct philosophy of general education that’s better than either Nussbaum or Emerson. (Although I cannot imagine a better guide than Emerson here!) As I say, I welcome help from my colleagues.
6. I hope I don’t have to say that of course the GE courses I anticipate would require students to master a great deal of knowledge. One doesn’t develop the kind of sensibility I valorize in a vacuum of information and skill. (One can’t, for example, talk sensibly about the cultural impact of SSRI’s unless one knows something about their chemistry and something about the neurostructures they affect. And so on.) The issue is emphasis: the GE courses I envision don’t fundamentally aim at knowledge and disciplinary competence; they use both to foster rigorous and sensitive responsiveness.
7. I’m assuming here the standard Furman pattern of four academic “divisions”: Natural Sciences/Mathematics; Social Sciences; Fine Arts; and Humanities. I do not rule out that a student might take more DR courses in a given division as electives or as major prerequisites or whatever. In fulfilling the DR, no more than 2 DR courses may be taken in any single division.
8. I would put in our admissions materials a strong recommendation that a student take the maximum available years of high school instruction in the foreign language of her choice.
9. It will not have escaped notice that I don’t mention the present HES requirement. The omission reflects my own ambivalence. I’m convinced that HES 10 is a fine course, and I would advise any student to take it. But should it be required? If it were, given my scheme, it would be the only specific course required for a Furman degree; and that strikes me as both conceptually odd and politically insupportable. Furthermore, in all honesty I can’t argue that HES 10 should be thought of as a requirement on a par with the GER or the DR or the foreign language requirement. I just don’t see it as educationally central to a liberal arts education in the way those large-scale requirements are. Is that an objectionable prejudice in favor of mind over body? I believe and hope not. As I say, I’d hate to see HES 10 not be one of the most popular courses at Furman. So what to do? Right now I lean toward designating HES 10 as a DR course counting as a social science. I suspect not every FU student would opt for it, but enough would so that the institutional and individual benefits of a strong HES department would remain. In this respect, HES 10 would be treated, on my scheme, just as would our present HST 11 or REL 11; and that’s appropriate, I think. In my scheme, some sacrifices have to be made in order to accomplish the greater good, but none of those sacrifices would cripple any department.
10. And this grieves me, since I think it’s a function of American cultural isolationism and complacency that most foreign languages have fallen on hard times. It’s certainly not the fault of those language teachers, nor does it reflect a sober and informed judgment made on educational grounds.
11. Given current high school language instruction, and given our country’s demographics, I doubt the Spanish program needs institutional support. We could have a good Spanish faculty and a vigorous Spanish major even if there were no foreign language requirement. Maybe that’s also true for French, though I doubt it. It’s the other languages I worry about, and, as I say, I can’t imagine a college like Furman without a classics major, or a German major, or significant instruction in Asian languages.
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September 17, 2004 10:11 AM
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