Undergraduate Education is Upside Down

Universally (nearly, at least) undergraduate education starts with a bunch of general education courses that all students must complete before graduation.  These courses are taught as introductions to specific fields and/or as weed-out courses.  That is, they are meant to either entice a student to major in a topic or to exclude someone from majoring in a topic.  This approach has many challenges.  One of the key purposes of the general education courses it to provide learners with a broad perspective of the world.  However, when classes are taught as gate-keeping courses, most students simply see the courses as hoops to jump through.  The larger purpose of helping students see broadly, diversely, or in integrated manner is not necessarily achieved.

But I am not here to try to resolve that problem in the typical way.  My recommendation is a bit more radical.  Having taught courses on Creativity for several years at BYU, I’ve come to realize how important it is that students are trained both with depth and breadth.  They should graduate as “T”s.  Unfortunately, the professors that teach students are “I”s, very siloed in their disciplines with little experience in teaching and learning in interdisciplinary or integrative ways (that is a problem of the structure of rewards and punishments in Higher Ed generally and not of professors specifically).  And students who graduate are like their professors “I”s.  Really good, with a lot of depth in one area…but lacking the full flavored breath that society should expect them to have.  And if the students have breath in their training, they unlikely were trained in integrative thinking.

My proposal for undergraduate education is this: Students should not take their general education courses until at least their junior year.  Students should be trained for 2 years solidly in a specific focus or major (becoming a great “I”).  But then as they continue in their major their last two years, their focus is widely and wildly expanded through integrative, interdisciplinary general education courses where (1) they bring their discipline to bear on problems and issues in other topics, disciplines, and fields, and (2) the issues and frameworks and ideas of other fields enhances and challenges the field that they are in.

Students would graduate from college as “T”s (with breadth and depth) instead of “I”s (with depth only) and be much more capable of contribution to the resolutions of the worlds great challenges.

About Taylor Halverson

I love learning. I love connecting. I love interdisciplinarity.
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3 Responses to Undergraduate Education is Upside Down

  1. I agree that the general education courses should not be front-loaded in a college career. (My history of civilization class was wasted on me as a freshman.)

    In my opinion, general education courses are almost the only remaining value to a university education because so often the courses aiming individuals toward a career outside of research or academia are several years behind industry. The “I” student is often deeply versed in outmoded or outdated paradigms.

    As a result, when the GEs are glossed over as hoops rather than the essence of education it makes the whole experience almost meaningless. It really just becomes an issue of having a “piece of paper” at graduation rather than an education.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Jeff H says:

    I am curious of statistics from employers and what they care about when they hire. As a former owner of many businesses I always liked to employ intellectually well rounded people and tried to hire to that end. However, the proliferation of schools outside the traditional brick and mortar university that focus more on core skills and much less on GE might suggest that employers increasingly care more about a specific skill, else why would employers continue to hire people with degrees from these institutions? I don’t claim to have the answer but I agree w/ Taylor that there are challenges, and that traditional education is changing.

  3. Rex B says:

    I think it’s a nice idea if you are absolutely certain as an 18-year-old of what it is you want to do with yourself. It would also work for someone who is okay with changing the path of their education as a junior or senior when they discover what it is they are truly passionate about.

    As it turns out, I was one of the students who chose to ignore some of the general ed courses until senior year. I set up my last semester to include several GEs.;
    But then two things happened: First I got an on-campus job that allowed me to really explore my creative side. Then I took your History of Creativity class. I discovered a passion for entrepreneurship, design, and creative thinking that had been pretty much dormant my entire college career.
    So there I was, 22 years old and one last upper-level English course left that I really didn’t want to finish because my heart wasn’t in it. I did finish, but the fact that I found a passion outside my major so late in my college career nearly ruined me.

    Now I’m 24, I have a BA in English, and I’m starting my own business while I work full-time at another business. I thought I’d be in grad school. I thought I would be on my way to a cushy professorship. But now I know what I want to do and I am pursuing it voraciously.

    So for what it’s worth, I wish I had taken a History of Creativity class my freshman year. I don’t regret my degree because it got me to where I am, but I certainly don’t think everyone should do things the way I did them.
    My only suggestion is to try and foster an environment of interscholastic study where students are allowed to write English papers on science books and make creative videos about biology. I agree that it’s time to mix higher education up, but I’m not in favor of turning it on its head.

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