General Education essential for future

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2014 2:37 pm

General Education essential for future

Michael Steiner – Dean of College of Arts Sciences

Northwest Missourian


Each summer hundreds of new freshmen arrive on the Northwest campus to launch themselves into college with their first stop at summer orientation and registration. The day culminates in the discovery by mid-afternoon of their academic schedules. What they find is a list of courses that they later learn all appear in a gray section of their Undergraduate Academic Catalog known as general education.

Reactions are mixed, and to those who are “deciding students,” these courses may appear variously as an interesting list of new classes to tackle or simply something they take while they think about a major. For those with a major, the schedule may include a couple of gems that strike their interest along with classes they “must take.”

Our goal, in any case, is to ensure that students discover that the General Education program is a highly enriching experience that provides a traditional university foundation that is still relevant to the opportunities they will enjoy as college graduates.

The tradition of higher education is grounded in liberal, broad or general education, and Northwest’s program is based on a set of goals shared by universities across the state based on that foundation of knowledge and skills. The social and behavioral sciences, humanities and fine arts, mathematics and life and physical Sciences are the key knowledge areas. The skills that they engage include communication, higher-order thinking, managing information and valuing.

The case is not hard to make for the benefits of understanding a wide range of knowledge areas to functioning as a citizen and enjoying more deeply the benefits that life has to offer. Navigating social interactions, appreciating beauty, and understanding more about how the world works have practical benefits as well as simply making life more enjoyable.

The clear benefit that a broad education provides outside of one’s vocational pursuits typically serves as the rationale for general education, and certainly these benefits stand on their own. But I would like to challenge students at Northwest to view general education as not only as a foundation in broad learning, but also as critical to their major and career pursuits.

There is a tendency to view the divide between general education and one’s major field of study as a segregation of traditional curriculum from classes that prepare workers for jobs.

Recent studies of employers, however, demonstrate that general education provides value to students across a broad spectrum of personal development, social responsibility, and employment in a marketplace in which technologies and global demands rapidly evolve. This has, of course, come under scrutiny, and there has been no shortage of speeches emphasizing the need for higher education to produce students with focused job skills.

There are studies that suggest a high degree of interest on the part of hiring managers for industry-specific skills, but other research demonstrates that this tends to relate to entry-level positions and the short term needs of lower-level managers.

A significant recent study by the respected Hart Research Associates for the American Association of Colleges and Universities shows that those higher in the ranks of management place a much greater value on the skills derived from general education for long-term professional advancement. The 2013 study of 320 employers found that 93 percent of employers thought the ability to engage in critical thinking, demonstrate communication skills and solve complex problems were more important than a job candidate’s degree program.

The employers surveyed indicated overwhelmingly, in fact, that universities should be placing even greater value on general studies, including personal and social responsibility. The results, when viewed alongside a number of other studies, indicate that while a focused vocational education may lead to a quick job, a liberal education component provides the intellectual capacity to nimbly adapt to rapid changes and longer-term satisfaction and security.

American universities in the nineteenth century combined the tradition of liberal education with the applied sciences and later a range of specialized vocational studies. The combination has produced a higher educational model that prepares students to succeed economically, socially and personally. General Education remains essential to that formulation and the program that students discover when they arrive at Northwest should be a welcomed opportunity.

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Thursday, April 24, 2014 2:37 pm.

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