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General Education Could Be Getting A Makeover at Public Universities

Over the last few years, quite a few higher education institutions have been criticized for appearing to focus more on niche topics while neglecting basic courses and curricula that constitute a well-rounded education. Many are starting to reevaluate what courses should be a priority and how to best go about implementing them at a state policy level.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Jenna Robinson, President of The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, to discuss new model legislation that would revamp general education courses at public universities to better prepare college students for their adult lives.


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Transcript: General Education Could Be Getting A Makeover at Public Universities

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Many of us recognize that something has gone wrong in higher education, when differing opinions aren’t used as teaching moments but shouted down and called hate speech. Well, Jenna Robinson is president of the James J. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She is one of a group of thought leaders who are hoping to change that problematic reality through legislation. She joins us today to discuss the model General Education Act that she co-authored with Stanley Kurtz and David Randall. Jenna Robinson, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

JENNA ROBINSON: It’s great to be here.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright, so first of all, who is this group of thought leaders that we referenced in the introduction? And how did it come about that you all decided to put your heads together and facilitate some kind of change?

JENNA ROBINSON: The three of us, Stanley Kurtz, David Randall, and I, are all members of the Civics Alliance, which is a project of the National Association of Scholars. David Randall works at the National Association of Scholars, and Stanley Kurtz works at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And so we’ve all known each other and talked about these various issues for a while. And it turned out that separately, we were all interested in general education. My colleague, Shannon Watkins, just wrote a report about general education. And this just seemed like it was a shared concern and interest of all of us. And so we decided to put it into legislation.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So when you say general education, what do you mean by that?

JENNA ROBINSON: We mean the 40-ish course credits that every student who is getting an undergraduate degree at a university is required to take. And so this is your first few semesters at a college or university, where you are learning kind of the basics, the foundation that will set you up for success as you go into your major.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Those of us who don’t spend our time studying academia, you know, we get snippets here and there about things that are happening, but give us a little bit of a comprehensive overview of what you see has gone wrong.

JENNA ROBINSON: So a lot has gone wrong, but I’ll talk specifically about what has gone wrong academically. And I think that what we’ve seen is that students are getting fed or offered kind of shallow, trendy courses, popular courses, instead of the meat and potatoes of what they really need to be prepared for citizenship, for leadership, and for participation in the marketplace. They just don’t have what they need to do that. They don’t have what they need to engage across differences, to be part of our pluralistic democratic republic, to be citizens. I think what they’re getting in their majors for their professions is something that’s easily measurable, you know, we know if someone is being prepared properly to be an engineer, right? But in terms of these bigger ideas, universities have just really dropped the ball.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Why did this come about? You’ve got some theories on exactly how this happened.

JENNA ROBINSON: So I think part of it is the way that universities decide what the general education is going to look like. And then, right now, that’s usually done by faculty committees. And frankly, the incentives for faculty are just all wrong to get a good general education curriculum. We know that faculty are rewarded for publications, they’re rewarded for their research, which means that they’re incentivized to spend their time on niche subjects that they can eventually publish articles or books on. And it also means that they have a tendency to want to teach those subjects, so you get people who all have their little niche concerns in a committee meeting to decide what is general education going to look like. And what it ends up as is all the faculty from the different disciplines want to maximize the number of courses they can teach in their departments and in their niche specialties. And so you get a general education curriculum that is thousands of courses long with many, many choices over every subject. So it’s really they end up giving the students a smorgasbord instead of a comprehensive, directed program.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Why legislation? Why do you think that’s the first place to start?

JENNA ROBINSON: Well, as I mentioned, the incentives for the faculty to do it themselves are just not there. If you put a faculty committee together at a typical public institution, this is not going to happen. And I think that boards have historically just shown a lot of deference to their campuses. And so boards don’t seem to have, at this point, the political will or the political motivation to take something like this on. But we have seen an appetite from legislators who are responding to the public to do something like this; we know that the public has lost trust in higher education. And I think a lot of that is because higher education is not delivering citizens ready to engage in the wider country, in the wider world. And so legislators just seemed like the ones who are ready to do this, have an appetite to do this, and are in a position because they are in charge of university systems writ large to figure out at which universities will this best work. And let’s try it there. And so they can pick, say, the flagship and do it at that one school.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so you are specifically targeting state legislators right now. We’re not talking federal legislation right now?

JENNA ROBINSON: Absolutely. Yes.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Because as I mentioned, we are not all experts on education and academia. And, of course, our lawmakers are not; you guys have gotten together and done this model General Education Act that you’re proposing as a good starting place, right? Talk to us about what that looks like.

JENNA ROBINSON: Sure. So, there are two parts of the act. One part suggests creating a new school of general education. And the purpose of that is so that the faculty in that school will have general education first and foremost on their mind, you know, they won’t be slaves to publication in their niche topics, they’ll be devoted to general education, and then you make that school responsible for the delivery of all the general education courses in the university. And then the second part of the bill lays out which courses we think are the most important for students to take. And it was very difficult to decide because traditionally, general education is about 40 to 42 hours; we know that students want to graduate on time, we want students to graduate on time, so we did not want to make it too many courses. So within that restricted 40/42 hours, and we ended up with 42, it was very hard to decide what was in and what was out. We landed on a lot of history, humanities, economics, philosophy, and less STEM. And we did that for reasons I can go into if you’re interested.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, one of the things that you do talk about is the importance of teaching Western tradition. So why is that so important for our students to be learning?

JENNA ROBINSON: I think, first and foremost, is because this is the country we live in. This is the culture that we’re swimming in, all of us. And I think it’s very important to understand that. Here in the United States, we were founded on an idea, right, individual liberty, free enterprise, federalism, civic republicanism, equality before the law. And all of our traditions and our government come from various places in the West; we get our idea of trial by jury out of England; we have our Senate that came from Rome, or democracy from Athens. Our motto In God We Trust comes from Israel. And so all of these are coming from places and ideas that you will learn about if you learn from and in the Western tradition. And I think that just to be an educated American, that is the background and the culture that you have to know. And I think also importantly, because America was founded on an idea. We have to understand those ideas all together as a culture, as a nation, in order to have any kind of social unity. You mentioned in the introduction that people seem to not be able to talk to each other anymore. They can’t have civil discourse. And I think that’s because we’re lacking that social cohesion that’s so important for a civilization to keep together.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Also, in your model legislation, you would mandate that the Bible be taught now; that seems pretty provocative. So why do you think that’s important, though?

JENNA ROBINSON: The Bible, aside from being a Christian book, is also the best-selling book of all time. It’s the most translated book of all time. And it’s the single most quoted source in the Oxford English Dictionary. And so I think if you do want to be an educated American, you have to know the Bible. Can you imagine someone who is in a leadership position in a very important role, who doesn’t know what another person means when they mention the Good Samaritan, or know that calling someone Judas is a synonym for being a traitor, or not know what the loaves and fishes are or who the Prodigal Son was? I think that those stories are just in our DNA. And the language of the King James Bible is in everything we hear and write. If someone says that he saw through a glass darkly, that comes from the Bible, and I think that to not know those stories is, you can’t function in kind of the highest levels of civic leadership and government, and even business if you aren’t steeped in that.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What kind of reaction have you received so far, I can only imagine, from the leaders of the universities?

JENNA ROBINSON: I think the most public reaction we got has been very split. We had excellent coverage in Real Clear Politics and some other media sources from people who really liked it and thought it was a great idea. And then we had a negative article written by someone who’s in the American Association of University Professors, saying that this is, you know, this is just legislators telling, telling teachers what to teach. And so I think it has been very divided based on, you know, where a person is coming from, and what they think of the current general education.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what kind of response from lawmakers are you hearing so far?

JENNA ROBINSON: We think that we have a couple of states that are possibly interested in this; I think it’s too soon to know for sure, as we just found out here in North Carolina, legislation moves very, very slowly. So we are we’re hopeful. And we anticipate that when this does get in the hands of lawmakers, they will adapt it and use the parts of it that they want, and kind of make it work for their own states and their own situations. And so we were happy to get it into their hands and to have them use it in ways that makes sense for them.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What kind of response, specifically, from North Carolina?

JENNA ROBINSON: Right now, our legislators, as you know, are kind of on their break. And so we haven’t really started putting this in their hands yet directly. And so I think that we will see.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right, right. So you mentioned STEM and how you would kind of curtail some of the – I guess that’s science, technology, engineering, and math – why would you not make that an emphasis in the general education requirements?

JENNA ROBINSON: So what we ended up doing is exempting STEM majors from three courses in our general education, so that they can take more of the classes that they need for their majors. Because engineering majors, science majors, tend to be extremely prescriptive in the courses that they have the students take. And so in order for them to get the additional science courses they needed, instead of trying to anticipate which ones were needed within the majors, we decided we would just give them a break on a few Gen Ed courses so they had the flexibility to take additional STEM within their majors. And so, I think by treating people who are going for a BS degree and a BA degree slightly differently, it gives that very necessary flexibility for those science heavy majors.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, Jenna Robinson, where can our listeners go to follow your work and to read this model General Education Act and just in general, keep up with what you all are doing?

JENNA ROBINSON: You can find the model and see everything else we’re doing at JamesGMartin.Center and the model is on our homepage. And so we hope you’ll check it out.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Great, thank you so much. Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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