Monday, October 16, 2017

Are We Witnessing the Death of General Education?

The state of New Mexico is undergoing a conversation about the nature of general education. Recently the Secretary of Higher Education has invited stakeholders to weigh in on a general education proposal developed by a state-wide committee.  The state-wide committee reduced the number of required credits from 36 credit hours to 31 credit hours with the idea that each institution would have flexibility to include first year experience courses, or interdisciplinary courses that emphasis an institutional held value or perspective.  Additionally, the state-wide committee emphasized the inclusion of essential skills that need to be embedded within the general eduction courses.

On the surface these principles seem like common sense, and they may be.  However, the heart and soul of the conversation will be about the details of general education.  As knowledge has expanded, faculty debate what subjects or disciplines should be included.  How many credits should be devoted to the Arts and Humanities?  How many should be devoted to Mathematics and/or Science?  Should Rhetoric and Speech Communication be included as separate options or should those skills be imbedded within broader disciplines?  In the end the final product will be based on a series of compromises.  I suspect the debate will not end when the final product is finally approved and adopted.

As this debate has progressed in New Mexico, I find myself asking the following question.  In the knowledge economy is there a base level of knowledge all people need to have?  If so, what knowledge should be mastered at each level of the education sector?  If the minimum level of expected education is a high school diploma, then what is the knowledge each high school graduate needs in order to move into post-secondary education or into training for work?

As I contemplate general education, the knowledge economy, the growing diversity of society and work I am beginning to question whether or not there is a notion of general education or whether or not there needs to be a series of several "general education" paths. If someone knows they are going to post-secondary education after high school do they need a different general education than someone who knows they are going to train for a particular career?  If someone is going to train for a particular career is there a different type of general education for a police officer than a nurse than an aerospace technician?

It is on this point that I appreciate the approach New Mexico is taking to general education. Allowing individuals an opportunity for choice within broader discipline categories with an emphasis on essential skills has the potential to address the differing needs of individuals pursuing the wide range of jobs and careers that exist in the world economy.  As I look forward to the debate over the details of general education in New Mexico, I hope that the final product keeps in place the emphasis on skills and flexibility.