Trustees | General Education

A counter view: Core subjects necessary

THE DAYTONA BEACH NEWS-JOURNAL   |  October 25, 2009 by Mark Harper

The course changes at Stetson University will fail students and their future employers, argues the head of an independent nonprofit group that advocates for academic freedom, quality and accountability.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, responded to several questions posed by The News-Journal in this e-mail exchange.

Your organization is arguing that U.S. colleges and universities need to return to teaching core subjects. Why?

Universities have a responsibility to ensure that all students graduate with a firm foundation in the areas of knowledge they will use for a lifetime. A well-rounded education cannot be left to chance. No 18-year-old, even the brightest, should have to determine which combination of courses comprises a comprehensive education. As such, students must be directed to certain key subjects, like composition, mathematics and economics, that together form the intellectual backbone of their education.

And you don’t need to take our word for it. A range of recent surveys shows that employers are increasingly dissatisfied with college graduates who lack the basic knowledge and skills expected of any educated person.

Is it more important in this so-called Information Age for students to obtain a basic knowledge of the world or to understand how information can be applied to problem-solving?

The argument that the Information Age—and the computer—have rendered obsolete most of the learning that takes place in a university classroom presupposes that a university degree is just a random collection of classes that amount to 120 credit-hours.

In truth, a quality university education aims both to develop certain skills, like writing and critical thinking, and to ensure that certain fundamental areas of knowledge are covered. Not all “information,” in other words, is equal. Universities have a duty to direct students to the most important areas of knowledge.

As you review the curriculum changes at Stetson University, what is your reaction?

The new curriculum minimizes academic expectations by requiring, as Stetson proudly advises, “fewer General Education courses” than the previous curriculum and allowing students to graduate with major gaps in their knowledge. On, our college guide Web site which grades universities on the strength of their curriculum, Stetson receives an “F.”

The mathematics requirement has been replaced by a quantitative reasoning component that allows students to avoid math altogether with classes like “General Astronomy” or “The Science of Music.” Whereas students were required to take two natural science classes under the old curriculum, they can now avoid science altogether by instead taking “Creative Arts” or “Culture and Belief” classes. Gone also is the intro to Western or world civilization class. Students must now however meet a Personal and Social Responsibility requirement that may be fulfilled with classes on “Health & Wellness” or “Human Diversity.”

The new First-Year Seminar—which includes course offerings like “How to be Americans: Star Trek and American Culture,” “Kitchen Chemistry: What’s Cooking?” and “American Popular Culture”—reflects a trend in many institutions towards narrow subjects often focused on popular culture.

There is no doubt that many of the courses in the Seminars and in the general education program will be interesting and have merit. But the question we’d ask of the folks at Stetson is whether the new curriculum guarantees students the broad foundation of knowledge that general education as a rule ought to require. We don’t think so.

Some of America’s most well-regarded institutions of higher learning, including some Ivy League schools, have gone away from wide survey courses, choosing instead to replace them with the interdisciplinary approach we’re starting to see at Stetson. Your grading system appears to take aim at this approach. How do you know this trend is failing to produce the kinds of graduates America needs to lead it in the 21st century?

At a certain level, one must make connections between different disciplines. As such, interdisciplinary classes definitely have a place in upper division coursework and potentially in freshman seminars designed to pique interest. They should not, however, be a substitute for deep, discipline-specific study.

The trend away from a discipline-specific core in recent decades is strongly correlated with declining literacy, numeracy, and general knowledge in college students. For example, according to the latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 31 percent of college graduates can read and understand a complex book.

We think a better question is why institutions continue to do more of the same, when there is evidence that students—not to mention our country which relies on an informed citizenry—are being shortchanged.

It’s interesting to note that some are bucking the trend: Last year, faculty from the University System of Georgia rejected an effort to adopt an interdisciplinary curriculum in favor of a more coherent general education framework.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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