The University of Kansas plans to cut its general education requirements in half. According to the university newspaper, K.U. will cut requirements from 72 credit hours of principal and distribution general education coursework to 36. This follows the Kansas State University action in 2011 that cut their general education coursework to eight courses: the "K-State 8."
Why are the two flagships of Kansas higher education gutting their general education programs?
We are drifting toward a "school-is-for-job-training" attitude. This "who-needs-to-learn-about-a-Grecian-urn?" philosophy drives the politics in Topeka and other state capitols as well.
And money is tight. Kansas has shifted from the 1980s when 40 percent of high school graduates attended college to the current situation where twice that percentage now attend tertiary schools. With money to support college-level students spread thin, student tuition has soared to make up the difference.
Having a well-educated populace was formerly a “public good.” Underwriting more of public college education provided a melting pot campus where hard-working and academically-gifted but economically poor students had as much opportunity as rich kids. Today, to justify their underfunding of education, politicians paint college as a private benefit. Some states’ universities receive no public funding.
So how does this drive a reduction in general education courses? In hard economic times, most folks focus on the earning power of a higher degree and see it as job-training. "Gen-ed" courses are viewed as needless requirements that "get in the way." As one student interviewed in the K.U. Daily Kansan reported: "Students are having to take an unrealistic amount of general education requirements."
At the Board of Regents and legislator level, they look at the average time students spend in college—five and a half years—and general education gets the blame. They are wrong.
First, sixty percent of college students across the country change their majors at least once. That is the major reason American students take longer. And it is good!
In today’s complex world, few students have a broad experience base to select a career.
A broad "gen-ed" curriculum forces them to sample a wide range of potential vocations. It is good when a student, who enters college with a vague idea that she or he might want to be an accountant, is "turned on" to writing and journalism by an inspiring teacher. It is not good, for the person and for society, when a student locks into a vocational path they thought they might like and then graduates into a job that they discover they hate. That wastes a life. That wastes state resources.
Secondly, future jobs require transferrable skills. Composition and speech and math and a basic understanding of what is alive in the thought of today are in high demand by employers. Those skills underlie the versatile workers of tomorrow.
The rationale for reducing "gen-ed" is based on the "outcomes" shuck-and-jive. First reduce the purpose of general ed to a simplistic “core curriculum.” Then asserting that writing can be assessed in a chemistry class or speech in an education course. This bankrupt strategy devalues the specialized skills of the composition and speech professors. Real transferable skills are taught by real professors in the field.
Art, music, literature, history, and similar courses are often dismissed by those who never experienced the humanities. My father was a good provider and worked hard. But when he retired, he had no favorite author to read, no appreciation of music. Watching the "Wheel of Fortune" gets old fast. While humanities courses also teach transferable skills, they contribute to our having a "life" after we get home from "making a living." That is a third reason general education contributes to the public good.
Other countries have had a model focused on job-training. I will be in China this summer where Chongqing has a whole university devoted just to electrical engineering. But China comes up short on creativity, Nobel Prizes, and mental happiness. So China is adding humanities to many college's curricula.
Other developed countries realize that their students will need to learn more, not less. They are adding courses. We are cutting them.
Both flagship universities in Kansas have surrendered to the job-prep pirates. Kansas students who want a fuller intellectual education may want to consider climbing aboard another ship.