Peer Review, Fall 2004
What Is a Generally Educated Person?
By Jerry G. Gaff, senior scholar, Association
of American Colleges and Universities
The late Joseph Katz defined general
education as "the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that
all of us use and live by during most of our lives--whether
as parents, citizens, lovers, travelers, participants in the
arts, leaders, volunteers, or Good Samaritans" (AAC
1988, 3). This definition invites individuals into a discussion
about which knowledge, skills, and attitudes are most important
for students to acquire and about which curricular and instructional
practices are most likely to cultivate them.
It is important for campuses periodically
to hold such conversations because the reasoning behind decisions
previously arrived at tends to fade with the passage of time,
eroding the social compact that explicitly defines the expectations
for student learning and provides a rationale for the curriculum.
Then faculty members tend to focus narrowly on their own courses
and the interests of their departments and to forget the larger
educational agenda facing their students. In such situations,
faculty often advise students to "get their general
education requirements out of the way" or teach their
own courses in ways that neglect the broader purposes that
nurture the qualities that characterize an educated person.
Another reason for initiating periodic
conversations about the aims of education and the best curricular
configurations for achieving them is that large numbers of
today's faculty have not been involved in such conversations.
In August, I visited three universities launching campus-wide
conversations about general education curricula. One had hired
more than half of its faculty in the last five years, and
the other two had large minorities of new faculty. The new
faculty often did not understand the rationale behind certain
requirements and lacked commitment to a curriculum that they
inherited rather than invented. Most junior faculty welcomed
conversations that invited them to participate in making decisions
about the best curriculum for their students.
When an institution's faculty and
other constituencies are asked what is most important for
their students to learn, they typically put the liberal arts
and sciences--their content, methods, and perspectives--at
the top of the list. For example, they commonly decide to
emphasize knowledge of history and culture and of science
and mathematics; skills such as logical and critical thinking
and communication; and knowledge about diversity, intercultural
skills, and engagement in the local community. Indeed, there
appears to be a convergence about what used to be called the
"marks of an educated person" across a wide variety
of groups. Leaders of the professional accreditation bodies
for business, education, engineering, and nursing have declared
the qualities of liberal education to be central to the successful
practice of all those professions. They and their colleagues
in regional accrediting and in several educational associations
have agreed that students should acquire the following attributes:
breadth of knowledge and capacity for lifelong learning; abilities
to analyze, communicate, and integrate ideas; and effectiveness
in dealing with values, relating to diverse individuals, and
developing as individuals (AAC&U 2004a).
The General Education We Need
Why are liberal and general educational
outcomes valued so highly today? In part, it is because the
United States has moved from an agrarian economy, through
an industrial economy, to a knowledge-based economy. Labor
economists have determined that, for a knowledge-based economy
where many people work on solving unscripted problems, a liberal
education is excellent preparation for the best careers (Carnevale
and Strohl 2001). These views reverse the old saw, derived
from the time of the industrial economy, that liberal and
general education are impractical, irrelevant, or unnecessary
and that only the major or professional preparation is of
value. Indeed, a contemporary liberal or general education
may be the most useful career preparation for the knowledge-based
In addition, this nation is far more
diverse than it ever has been, and it is engaged in global
affairs in regard to such matters as defense, the environment,
health, and justice. Educated people need to be able to understand
the similarities and differences among people and to develop
the capacities to bring different people together to solve
problems, whether in the workplace, one's community,
How to Secure Agreement about
How can campus-wide agreement about the
most important goals of a college education be secured? When
faculty are invited into a conversation about the curriculum,
they tend to emphasize the issues important to themselves,
such as disciplinary turf, workload, and resources. Understandably,
they want to protect their own courses and departments, are
wary of any extra work that a curricular revision might entail,
and suspect that there may not be enough resources to support
change. Although these are important issues, they ought not
to drive the conversation. In fact, if turf issues predominate,
curriculum discussions become little more than a political
tug of war dominated by the strongest factions. I typically
advise campus leaders to set aside these issues and to take
up staffing, faculty workload, and resources later, when specific
curricular proposals are considered.
Instead, the conversation should be driven
by learning goals for students and the educational principles
that are shared among the faculty. My experience is that curriculum
committees or task forces tend to rush too quickly into the
design of a new curriculum. It is important to take enough
time to discover what is common among the faculty and to secure
basic agreement about what they think students should learn
and about what qualities should characterize a high-quality,
coherent college education. If a faculty has done a lot of
such talking and has worked across departments and schools
on innovations in teaching, learning, and the curriculum,
then agreement about these fundamentals may come fairly quickly.
On the other hand, if a faculty has done little talking or
experimenting, it will take faculty members longer to get
to know one another, to determine what they have in common,
and to agree upon a curricular framework for their students.
How can one engage the faculty and keep
them focused on deciding what a high-quality education for
students should consist of? One way--usually a prescription
for disaster--is for the members of a curriculum leadership
group to confine the conversation among themselves, develop
the best proposal they can devise, distribute it to their
faculty colleagues, and then hold a public hearing. Without
prior conversations, awareness that there are problems with
the current curriculum, and agreements about what students
should learn, faculty are sure to attack any proposed change,
no matter how well thought out or cogently expressed.
A better approach is to lead the faculty
into a collective inquiry involving several dimensions:
- An analysis of problems with the
current curriculum to preempt the sure-to-be-heard remark
that "if it isn't broke, don't fix it"
- Data from student evaluation of courses,
surveys of student experiences, exit interviews of students
withdrawing, and evidence about student retention, for example,
which can provide useful information that is not widely
- Studies of national curriculum trends
and of what other institutions are doing
- Analyses of the professional literature
containing issues and concerns that may resonate on the
- Comments of community advisory bodies
or employers about what they look for in hiring new employees
and the perceived strengths and weaknesses of their graduates
Such new information is part and parcel
of the kind of intellectual inquiry already familiar to faculty
One other tendency of curriculum task
forces is to hold discussions with departments and schools.
Although these groupings surely must be heard, meetings in
their departments tend to elicit protection of disciplinary
or departmental turf. At least at an early stage, it is better
to organize small interdisciplinary groups to discuss what
students should learn and to share educational ideas among
individuals who may not have discussed these matters. This
can elicit more creative responses, as individuals play off
the ideas of their colleagues. These small groups are more
conducive to open, inclusive, and constructive dialogue than
are department meetings where a few voices tend to dominate.
One particularly interesting way to stimulate
dialogue is by changing the terms and getting outside the
usual discussions. For example, one technique I have used
is to ask faculties to complete a brief questionnaire and
then discuss their various responses. In an exercise I call
"The Fives," faculty are asked to list the five ideas and
skills they want students to learn, the five persons (living
or dead) they would want their students to know, the five
places they would like their students to visit, the five musical
or artistic performances their students should see, the five
books students should read, etc. Individuals can then discuss
their answers and the reasoning behind them. In another questionnaire,
Assessing General Education (Meacham 1994), individuals
are asked to rate their general education program on twenty-eight
different dimensions identified as important in various AAC&U
publications, such as the clarity of student learning goals,
coherence of the curriculum, and evidence of effectiveness.
Then responses can be compared, and discussions can focus
on items where there is much disagreement or on those dimensions
with high or low scores.
Two Remaining Challenges
After more than two decades of serious
attention to assessing the outcomes of a college education,
few colleges and universities can answer legitimate questions
about how much their students are learning. While there are
good tests for measuring effectiveness in business, law, and
other professions, the outcomes of general education remain
elusive and relatively unstudied. In a recent statement from
its board of directors, AAC&U (2004b) urges institutions
to focus on five widely valued sets of educational outcomes
and to concentrate on assessing them. The outcomes are (1)
analytical, communication, quantitative, and information processing
skills; (2) understanding inquiry practices of the natural
sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts; (3) intercultural
knowledge and collaborative problem-solving skills; (4) proactive
sense of responsibility for individual, civic, and social
choices; and (5) habits of minds that foster integrative thinking
and the ability to transfer knowledge and skills from one
setting to another. (An abridgement of this statement is published
in this issue on pages 26-29.)
Another challenge is to entice individual
departments to incorporate attention to general education
goals into their major programs. In traditional practice,
general education has been separated from study in the major,
and preprofessional education has stood apart from other college
programs. Yet, as noted in AAC&U's report Greater
Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to
College (2002, 31), "the goals of liberal education are
so challenging that all the years of college and the entire
curriculum are needed to accomplish them. Responsibility for
a coherent curriculum rests on the shoulders of all faculty
members working cooperatively." Indeed, the recommendation
that college curricula integrate general education and study
in the major, including preprofessional programs, lies at
the very heart of the Greater Expectations vision.
Complex liberal learning outcomes ought
to be developed across the curriculum, creating a coherent
educational experience. Through their course requirements
for the major, departments can do an excellent job of addressing
skills such as critical and analytic thinking, communication,
and the use of technology. They also can incorporate attention
to ethics and help students attend to diversity in their courses
of study. At institutions that value these kinds of learning,
it is a mistake to neglect the power of majors to embrace
and cultivate them. As the late Ernest Boyer reminded us (1988),
"rather than divide the undergraduate experience into
separate camps, general versus specialized education, the
curriculum of a college of quality will bring the two together."
In the words of the seminal publication
Integrity in the College Curriculum (AAC 1985, 9), the
task is "to revive the responsibility of the faculty as a
whole for the curriculum as a whole." It is the corporate
quality of the general education program that makes it so
difficult to secure agreement among the faculty about the
aims and principles of education. It would be easy for each
individual to describe his or her concept of an educated person,
but the reality is that it is a community that must reach
agreement. This is the first and necessary step in renewing
a general education program, one that intentionally cultivates
the essential qualities of an educated person.
Association of American Colleges (AAC).
1985. Integrity in the college curriculum. Washington,
DC: Association of American Colleges.
---. 1988. A new vitality in general
education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.
Association of American Colleges and
Universities (AAC&U). 2002. Greater expectations:
A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college.
Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
---2004a. Taking responsibility
for the quality of the baccalaureate degree. Washington,
DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
---. 2004b. Our students' best work:
A framework for accountability worthy of our mission.
Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Boyer, Ernest. 1988. College: The
undergraduate experience in America. New York: HarperCollins.
Carnevale, Anthony P. and Jeff Strohl.
2001. The demographic window of opportunity: Liberal education
in the new century. Peer Review 3(2): Washington,
DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Meacham, Jack. 1994. Assessing general
education: A questionnaire to initiate campus conversations.
Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and