Students & Parents | General Education

How We Could Radically Rethink the Core Curriculum in Higher Education

MEDIASHIFT   |  January 23, 2018 by Megan Fromm

In the spirit of a new year, I’d like to propose a radical resolution for colleges and universities across America: ditch your general education requirements.

At a time when so-called “soft skills” such as communication and problem-solving are in demand at major employers around the world, a new core curriculum represents the best chance for college-bound young adults to develop the intellect, attitudes and skills that will carry them into the future.

“Today’s general education requirements still often overlook what should be a critical component of 21st century learning: global citizenship in a networked world.”

This new liberal arts core would be one that is civic-minded, interdisciplinary, adaptative and integrates journalism and media at every opportunity and in every course.

And we have to start now; we’re already behind the curve.

Why We Need A Liberal Arts Core Revision

General education requirements at most higher education institutions are emblematic of a system struggling to find its identity. Students often select from myriad courses to fulfill one area of the general core requirements, and universities tend to pride themselves on their variety of offerings.

The great hope, of course, is that for the first two years of college, students will cobble together a course load that is at once unique to their interests while also providing a sufficient foundation for a well-rounded liberal arts education. Absent advising from professors and academic counselors, however, many undergraduate students are tempted to choose courses that look easy or fit their sleep schedules.

At best, this approach is outdated. At worst, we’re offering our students a “cafeteria-style” approach to what should be a more thoughtful moment in their educational journey.

We can do better, and there’s evidence to encourage higher education institutions to revisit their gen ed requirements. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s 2017-2018 “What Will They Learn” study found that less than half of the colleges and universities studied required general education coursework in literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history or economics.

In the fight to appeal to incoming freshmen, many universities now offer either sweeping, generic core classes or such specialized, niche classes that comparing courses within a department or core domain might be impossible. The study found vague course catalog descriptions compound the problem, making it hard to discern the tangible learning objectives across core areas.

Grounding The Core In The Global

Sure, universities could tighten up their course descriptions or standardize their offerings, but today’s general education requirements still often overlook what should be a critical component of 21st century learning: global citizenship in a networked world.

The council’s executive report argues “American higher education needs to become serious about equipping students to be effective participants in global conversations and a global economy.”

While the study has some limitations (for example, it surveys course titles as they fulfill catalog requirements but does not consider a full syllabus, learning objectives or assessment tools for any individual course), it is not alone in its criticism of general education requirements across the United States.

Though dated and funded by a conservative advocacy group, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 2011 civic literacy study found college degrees failed to inculcate students with the motivation to participate in civic life.

“Said another way, among persons with equal civic knowledge, those having earned a bachelor’s degree do not demonstrate any systematic and added political engagement beyond voting,” the report argues.

Envisioning A New Core Framework

So what does this new college curriculum look like?

Instead of offering courses that align with subject areas, let’s focus on classes that build awareness and skill regarding essential critical mental and social processes.

Imagine, for example, if a university catalog were to shift its general education requirements away from the standard knowledge areas of language, literature, science, math, history, arts, politics and health and wellness and instead implement required classes in these domains:

  • Media literacy
  • Data fluency
  • Citizenship and empowerment in the digital era
  • Political systems, markets and the economics of information
  • Social and personal wellness
  • Communication across borders

These domains don’t preclude teaching traditional subjects, such as the hard sciences and foreign language, but they demand we do so in context with the media tools and technologies that shape every aspect of education, communities and the world today.

Many students already opt out of technically demanding options such as physics or chemistry, so why not restructure our core to present challenging materials and concepts within a framework that is accessible (and empowering) to digital natives?

Yes, our students need math. Yes, they need history. But students need those courses to be fundamentally restructured in response to the world we’re asking them to one day lead.

As an educator, I know the semantics of course titles matters little compared to the actual learning objectives set forth. In this new 21st century curriculum, then, what will our students learn in each area? Below are skills and topical benchmarks that could anchor each new discipline:

Media literacy

  1. How to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication (based on the definition from the National Association for Media Literacy Education)
  2. The role of journalism in a democratic society
  3. Media law and ethics
  4. Media creation and production

Data fluency

  1. Statistics and data computation
  2. Access to information and public data
  3. Ethical issues in communicating data
  4. Best practices in research and knowledge development

Citizenship and empowerment in the digital era

  1. The First Amendment and freedom of expression
  2. Effects of media on society
  3. Technology as tools for empowerment
  4. Civic mobilization through media

Political systems, markets and the economics of information

  1. Media conglomerates and information integrity
  2. Algorithms and filter bubbles
  3. News and information as commodities
  4. Power, politics and media spectacle
  5. Entrepreneurship and innovation

Social and personal wellness

  1. Developing empathy
  2. Social justice and community-building
  3. Habits of mind and technology for healthy media use
  4. Issues of diversity locally, regionally and globally

Communication across borders

  1. Power of language and rhetoric
  2. Foundations of communication
  3. Composition and technical writing
  4. Marginalized voices in history
  5. Communication across disciplines and languages

If we pull back the curtain a bit more, we can see how rethinking our undergraduate curriculum is an opportunity to provide a truly well-rounded education for our young adults who will face challenges we have yet to conceptualize.

The ideas I’ve outlined here are not meant to be (and truly, should not be) prescriptive—I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can rethink the undergraduate general education approach to better serve our global community. What did I miss? Which ideas are bunk or completely unrealistic? Where do we begin? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I welcome the conversation, which we can start at #thenewgeneds.


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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