Letter to the Editor: Faculty response to ‘General education classes must go’

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Harrison Raskin raises some concerns about and objections to general education requirements at UConn that I suspect are shared by some other students and even faculty. I respond as a faculty member who has devoted my thirty-year career to general education of undergraduates at all levels of higher education: Community college, comprehensive state university and this research university.

The seemingly competing goals of further education—preparation for a profession/preparation of a well-educated citizen—can be vexing. In an age when public higher education has been underfunded for two or three decades (with a greater burden carried by increased tuition costs) and economic realities seem ever more uncertain, public higher education leaders should be attentive.

Although for many people, a UConn degree is a career credential, for me UConn students are preparing for something larger and more ambitious than resume development. UConn is an academy for leaders. A baccalaureate degree program is preparation for civic and professional leadership.

General education courses can give us the suppleness of mind and the habits of thought that prepare us to engage with other disciplines, professions and communities. As an undergraduate English major, I had the opportunity to take courses in anthropology, history, geology, photography (taught in the physics department!) and electronic music (requiring a facility with physically cutting and splicing quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape). Over the following decades I felt at home in discussions with social scientists, historians, earth scientists and artists in my leadership roles in community development and education.

My own generation advocated for the dismantling of antiquated “distributional requirement” systems in order to open up elective options and to make courses that were more relevant to students in a world wracked by racial injustice, a seemingly endless and unpopular American war in a distant land, the threat of annihilation by weapons of mass destruction and anxiety about environmental collapse.

Does that sound familiar? (Our reality in the late 1960s and early 70s.)

All universities accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education are required as a condition of that accreditation to provide—in addition to “the areas of specialization proper to its principal educational programs”—“a coherent and substantive program of liberal studies at the postsecondary level, as either a prerequisite to or a clearly defined element in those programs.”
We could abandon accreditation, of course, but then our faculty and most students would flee, in part because federal funding (including tuition assistance for students) requires regional accreditation.

Nonetheless, for the past several years, a taskforce commissioned by the University Senate and comprised of faculty, staff, administrators and students, has been developing a proposal for revising UConn’s core education for leadership. We have engaged students and faculty through surveys and focus groups. Our comprehensive report in April 2019 outlined a framework that the University Senate accepted.

Manuela Wagner, the chairperson of the Senate’s General Education Oversight Committee, and I co-chair the DeltaGE Taskforce. (In physics, the Greek letter Δ signifies “change”—a concept that we’ve inherited from the ancient natural philosophers.) We are working on refining the framework accepted by the University Senate, which will move away from disciplinary categories (the old “content areas”) into six modes of thought, judgment, innovation, and creativity: Scientific Theory and Empiricism; Design, Innovation, and Creativity; Individuals and Institutions; Environmental Literacy; Cultural Foundations; and Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice.

Among other ways that we engaged students in the preparation of this proposal was to host a university-wide student essay competition, which received over 50 applications. You can read the winners here.

Mr. Raskin will have finished graduate school, no doubt, by the time this proposed core curriculum is fully implemented. But his assertions about his statistics course prompts me to observe that I have spent the past four decades regretting that I did not have stats. Every profession runs on them. Sometimes when we’re in college we don’t know what we’re going to need later.

Thomas Lawrence Long, PhD, Professor in Residence

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