Making General Education Meaningful : Definitive Analysis

My recent posts about Dual Credit programs for high school students indicate that some of the most popular courses selected are math, English, social sciences, and history. Each of these subject areas are part of the freshmen general education requirements at most colleges.

Back in September, Shannon Watkins published a paper titled Making General Education Meaningful. A quick search through Google Scholar using the term “general education curriculum” yields 3,260,000 results. Ms. Watkins paper is not the only academic treatise on gen ed, but it may be relevant for high schools building a dual credit program.

Ms. Watkins organized her paper in four parts: General Education: Definition and Purpose; A Higher Vision of General Education; The Evolution of General Education, and Alternative Visions. Those four parts are followed by a conclusion.

The opening paragraph in Ms. Watkins’ paper provides an accurate summation of the perception of general education.

General education is the unglamorous and often misunderstood component of a college education. To some legislators, educational bureaucrats, and prospective employers, it is merely a way to teach specific skills desirable in the workplace. To many students, it’s a bothersome list of requirements they must get out of the way before advancing to the more interesting content of their majors and electives. And sometimes faculty treat it cynically, demanding that their own esoteric classes be included in the program to boost enrollment.

Ms. Watkins writes that a serious and good general education program can “greatly deepen students intellectually by teaching students to reason in the fuller sense, impart essential knowledge, reinforce the civic and humanistic values imperative for a flourishing society, and improve skill-building by making it more meaningful.”

To build such a meaningful program, colleges must state which specific knowledge students should learn in their general education programs. Permitting students to take any history course instead of one with the most important events, trends, and ideas undermines the goal of “fostering adept reasoners” writes Ms. Watkins.

A good general education should include the study of history, science, mathematics, literature, and philosophy. Failing to require rigor in general education courses adds little value to an education. “Works of great intellectual achievement can help students develop a heightened moral awareness and enlarge their worldviews.”

While Ms. Watkins’ paper was not intended for high schools considering implementation of a dual credit program, the good news is that the programs of study areas mentioned are typically in the mainstream curricula of a high school education. Balancing the need for higher level content and rigor to qualify as college equivalencies may be the tougher task.

General Education Definition and Purpose

Exposure to the humanities prepares science majors to be better scientists writes Ms. Watkins, just as exposure to the sciences may be crucial for those with interests in the liberal arts. Understanding the scientific process helps a student understand how to base decisions on evidence rather than “unfounded assumptions.”

Ms. Watkins provides guidelines for building a solid general education curriculum.

  • General education programs should be prescriptive, not self-directed. Colleges should mandate that students take a specific set of courses.
  • Students should be able to apply their learning to a broad range of important topics. It is not enough to have a narrow understanding of a short period in U.S. history or to be ignorant of most of the great books of the western world.
  • Courses in a well-crafted general education program should not be disconnected but should work together to produce a coherent worldview. A good program will integrate the awareness of the history of political, economic, and cultural institutions of the U.S. and the West along with “their culture’s major philosophical and literary achievements.
  • If general education is to be taken seriously by students, it must be rigorous. Assignments and grading should push students to their intellectual limits. The importance of writing well should not be overestimated. Students should be exposed to subjects where there are right and wrong answers.
  • Students are at an appropriate level of maturity and intellectual attainment to grasp high level civic and humanistic values. Education does not teach skills alone but influences the whole person.

In assessing the value of this section to dual enrollment program design, I believe high school upper-level courses in math, English, history, and science align well. Again, my concern would be that the rigor of these courses matches the rigor expected in college. It’s not surprising that the majority of dual enrollment students are 11th and 12th graders.

A Higher Vision of General Education

Ms. Watkins states there are two conflicting views as to how students should be trained to address complex problems or issues. These conflicted views are a content-neutral approach to general education versus a content-rich approach to general education.

Few education programs today require students to study a specifically defined body of knowledge. The philosophy is that the books, lectures, and discussions that make up the content of the students’ courses is inconsequential. The cognitive and practical skills learned via the process of taking courses are what matter, not the specific knowledge acquired.

The content-neutral approach requires students to navigate through hundreds or even thousands of course options (My guess is that these high numbers are reserved for the largest and/or wealthiest colleges. Nonetheless, stories about gen ed course expansion are numerous).

Many gen ed courses are narrow, superficial, or politicized. Requirements for students to be familiar with broad areas of knowledge like math, science, English, and history are referred to as distribution requirements. (Once again, using some of Ms. Watkins’ points as a guide to a high school dual enrollment program, the upgraded high school courses would be broad in nature).

Ms. Watkins cites the work of two scholars at the University of Virginia, E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham, who have published large bodies of work “stressing the pivotal role specific factual knowledge plays in the brain’s ability to learn new information and develop mental skills such as evidence-based reasoning.”

According to Ms. Watkins, Hirsch’s and Willingham’s findings suggest that higher ed’s narrow focus on generic thinking skills versus learning a defined body of knowledge is flawed. Furthermore, the content-neutral approach is not supported by science and stunts student learning.

Citing other scientists’ research, Ms. Watkins writes that “the more one knows about a particular problem – the more related information they have stored in long term memory – the better one will be able to reason about it and arrive at a solution.” A random assortment of unconnected facts in long term memory won’t make students good general thinkers.

Defining Essential Knowledge

Ms. Watkins poses the question “if learning and thinking are intertwined with specific content, then which information should students be learning in college general education programs? What storehouse of knowledge should they be building in their long-term memory?”

According to UVA researcher Hirsch, students should be taught the knowledge that provides them with cultural literacy. A culturally literate American can read and understand “newspapers of substance” according to Hirsch. Learning about other cultures can be valuable but “should not be the primary focus of general education.”

Arguing that it is not enough for people to have knowledge, purpose, and values in common, Ms. Watkins argues that the content of general education programs should “consist of a coherent survey of the works, discoveries, and history of Western civilization.”

In our interconnected world, Hirsch’s advice may need to be adapted. Fortunately, newspapers of substance still exist. At the same time, they may not be accessible to all students. It’s important to direct students to sources of substance and not the content they access on “free” social media.

Coursera Georgetown University Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies
college student learning in library

The Western Canon

Centering general education courses around the West satisfies three goals writes Ms. Watkins.

First, it provides students with a coherent and rigorous body of cultural knowledge. Second, it cultivates the civic and humanistic values and habits of mind necessary for responsible citizenship and leadership. Third, knowledge of their cultural roots helps students understand themselves as Americans, which in turn promotes social unity.

Ms. Watkins provides substantial arguments for focusing the structure of a general education curriculum around the Western canon under the following three reasons:

  1. The Western canon allows students to understand the history of mankind’s greatest ideas and achievements and brings them to bear on contemporary problems.
  2. The Western canon contains models of human excellence.
  3. The Western canon contains the specific ideas that are necessary for students to understand themselves as Americans – liberty, natural rights, republicanism, democracy, and constitutional theory. This shared cultural knowledge promotes social unity.

I think Ms. Watkins’ recommendations are perfect for high school students completing dual enrollment courses that may satisfy some or all their general education requirements in college. Better still, by completing these courses in high school, it provides a grounded basis for the older student when in college to explore societies with different backgrounds.

The Evolution of General Education

In America’s colonial era, college curricula consisted of classical subject matter. Knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek was required. Influenced by the rise of industrialization and the rise of the German research university, different conceptions of higher education rose in the 19th century.

German universities introduced the idea of an elective curriculum. Students were given the freedom to design their courses of study. As the number of faculty at U.S. colleges grew, this growth enabled the trend toward specialization. From its inception in 1876, Johns Hopkins University introduced the concept of academic majors and minors, later adopted by most colleges.

The expansion of elective curriculums led some colleges to consider the negative aspects of elective and specialized curriculum. Ms. Watkins writes that Columbia University is regarded as the pioneer in the general education movement when it required that all freshmen complete a course in Contemporary Civilization shortly after World War I (1919).  Later, Columbia added required courses in humanities and science.

General Education Post-World War II

A six-volume 1947 report by the President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education asserted that too many college programs were not preparing students to be good workers and citizens “because the unity of liberal education has been splintered by over-specialization.” The report highlighted the need for common values and knowledge.

By 1950, more than half of U.S. colleges and universities adopted general education programs that placed importance on the acquisition of basic skills in language, science, and mathematics, as well as creating a shared sense of intellectual and social experience for students and faculty. Ms. Watkins cites a 1993 NAS report that highlighted the growth in general education curricula from 1914 to 1993.

The U.S. cultural revolution that occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s weakened the prescriptive nature of general education curricula according to Ms. Watkins. She provides a historical perspective of the devolution of the general education program at UNC – Chapel Hill as an example of the retreat from organized knowledge.

According to Ms. Watkins, college faculty’s control over curriculum tightened, and they resist attempts to make general education more coherent and meaningful. The Demographic cliff faced by colleges may contribute to further weakening of curricula to compete for a shrinking pool of students.

Alternative Visions for General Education

Ms. Watkins provides three “case studies” of general education programs. Two are actual programs at UNC – Chapel Hill and Columbia College, the liberal arts division of Columbia University. The third is a Great Books curriculum that was proposed by the University of Chicago’s president, Robert Hutchins, in 1936.

Martin Center Recommended Gen Ed Curriculum

Ms. Watkins is affiliated with the Martin Center at UNC – Chapel Hill. She provides a Center-recommended general education curriculum that is based on the goals and ideas discussed in the Vision section of her paper. An example curriculum is listed below.

  1. Reasoning and Writing (19 Credit Hours)
  • Formal Logic (3 units) or calculus for science majors
  • Statistics (3 units)
  • Composition (3 units)
  • Rhetoric (3 units)
  • Ideas of Science (3 units)
  • Physical and Natural Sciences (4 units, 1 course, 1 lab)
  1. Foundational Ideas in Western Civilization (21 Credit Hours)
  • History of Western Civilization I and II (6 units)
  • American History or Government (3 units)
  • Great Books in the American and English Traditions (3 units)
  • Great Books in the Western Tradition (3 units)
  • Political and Economic Systems (3 units)
  1. Total 40 Credit Hours

Maryland 2020-2021 Dual Enrollment Report

 The state of Maryland provides an annual report on dual enrollment to the Governor and legislature. Its most recent report (2020-2021) provides a list of Dual Enrollment Courses for each of its school systems (typically counties).

Without links to the actual course syllabi, it’s impossible to ascertain whether these courses meet the broader background espoused by Ms. Martin. Most of the math and science courses have course titles that infer a fit. Course titles like Modern American History, Modern World History, Sociology, Philosophy, and English are more difficult to evaluate.

Based on my review of the dual enrollment courses listed by Maryland, it’s clear (and good) that high schools and colleges are partnering in a variety of courses beyond gen ed. Many computer science and business courses are included in addition to a few vocational courses like Ag. If I were a high school beginning dual enrollment, I’d opt for the broader gen ed courses.

Making General Education Meaningful Conclusion

For a short-term solution to general education’s “state of disrepair,” Ms. Watkins recommends that students and their parents should be discerning about which institutions to attend and strategic in the courses that they take once there. It’s best, she writes, for students to pick an institution offering a structured program that emphasizes the West’s intellectual heritage.

It will be difficult for students to know what to study in the first place to maximize the personal learning growth that a good general education program should provide. Ms. Watkins notes that it is inexcusable for universities that put the responsibility for making decisions about general education on students.

Because many students do not have parents or advisors capable of guiding them knowledgeably about general education courses, Ms. Watkins argues that the long-term solution is to pursue curricular reform. In a time of fragmented knowledge, political polarization, and cultural decay, the Truman Commission’s call for a “core of unity” in general education resonates clearly.

My observations

I like the historical perspectives on the evolution of general education provided by Ms. Watkins’ paper. I also like the details about the scientific evidence toward reinforcing specific learning in long-term memory that will align with professional and cultural experiences and enhance a person’s ability to problem-solve and think critically.

As stated earlier, my intention of reading the paper and describing its main points was to see if there are any red flags for high schools contemplating building a dual credit program with a public or private college in their state. I think there are two.

High schools looking to have some of their existing courses approved for dual credit would be best to keep them aligned with broader standards in math, English composition, history, and social sciences. Even if a partner college has an esoteric, specialized course that aligns, it may not be a course that would be accepted as a general education course if a student matriculates somewhere else.

Second, Ms. Watkins makes a good point that most college freshmen will not receive the appropriate advising from the college or their parents. Even worse, some students will likely fulfill required gen ed courses based on how they fit into their academic schedule. Completing more of those courses in high school through a dual credit program would be a bigger benefit to the student’s learning.

I don’t believe that high schools have the same breadth of elective courses that colleges offer, so perhaps my concerns about more specialized and thinner general knowledge courses for dual credit are unfounded. Nonetheless, the broader the applicability, the more likely the fact that a course will be accepted for transfer at institutions other than the partnership college.

Perhaps the title of the paper best sums up its recommendations: Make General Education Meaningful. That may be easier said than done, particularly for colleges. Perhaps the coming economic exigency will force a reexamination of the breadth of gen ed offerings. Otherwise, dual enrollment students may see an added benefit by avoiding narrow topic gen ed courses.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence