A call to excellence: The hub of General Education
This message is the first in a series this fall on General Education in the College of Arts and Sciences. Paul Reitter, professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, is an expert on the history of general education and higher education at The Ohio State University. Janet Box-Steffensmeier is interim executive dean and vice provost for Arts and Sciences at Ohio State. Between them, they have almost 45 years of dedication to both General Education and The Ohio State University on behalf of their students.
Next year, General Education at U.S. universities turns 100. There will not be much fanfare, but that should not lead us to underestimate the importance of General Education. It has been a signature part of higher education in America, one of the reasons for the preeminence of our higher education system.
History of General Education
Like the system itself, General Education owes its rise to multiple ideals and commitments, some of which might not seem to go together very well. The great transformation of American higher education between 1870 and 1910, which saw hundreds of new institutions founded, among them Ohio State, left many professors and administrators uneasy. Some felt that undergraduate education had become too specialized, or in a way, too utilitarian; they worried that the open-ended exploration of classic works and big questions was being crowded out by training in specialized research methods.
But others thought that undergraduate education had remained too impractical: The idea here was that a modern system of higher education should prepare students to engage with the world as mature citizens, which would mean helping them make sense of the circumstances they would be encountering after college. The syllabus for what is widely considered the first General Education course, “Contemporary Civilization” at Columbia, told students they “should understand the forces which are at work in the society of their own day.” First taught in 1919, it was soon joined by a great books course.
The impulses behind the original General Education program are still active among university faculty and administrators. This partly explains why GE programs can go on for only so long before they need to be revised: As the contemporary world changes, GE courses and programs should, at some point, change too. It also helps explain why it can be difficult for faculty and administrators to agree on a plan for revision. But if the tension between core GE commitments has made for long meetings, it has also been productive, even essential. At its best General Education is liberal education — that rigorous open-ended exploring — grounded in a strong sense of social mission.
Arts and Sciences as the hub of GE
Revisions to the General Education program at Ohio State are meant to realign our GE with this combination of commitments. A chief aim is to put our students first and allow these talented young people to engage with an array of topics, broadly, but also with the kind of depth and intensity found only at institutions where new knowledge is produced. So far, a lot of creative energy has gone into designing a GE worthy of a flagship public university, as numerous conversations about the GE have taken place on our campuses over the past year.
GE requirements broaden students’ education and world view, enlightening them on rich areas of academic research and discourse under the tutelage of world-class faculty. GE is, moreover, a major factor behind the functioning of the higher education system in the U.S. as an incubator and engine of ingenuity and innovation. When carried out well, liberal arts education at this level not only enriches the inner lives of students. It also promotes effective citizenship and facilitates the development of transferable skills — such as good communication, creative problem-solving, understanding the perspectives of cultures other than their own, proficiency in different modes of analytic reasoning, situating issues historically, and reflecting systematically on questions of ethics, values, aesthetics, and meaning, both past and present.
GE programs help universities like Ohio State achieve their loftiest educational goals while also yielding such practical benefits as helping professional students succeed in a world of global interconnections and rapid automation, one where for most people the future of the workplace is highly uncertain and changeable. The ability to adapt and pivot to evolving work and global environments is crucially important. All this turns on General Education remaining liberal education, and the College of Arts and Sciences is — and thus should be — the central hub for GE courses.
Revisions to GE at Ohio State
Another original goal of GE programs still applies: to provide curricular coherence outside courses for the major. But as they expand and change over decades, GE programs tend themselves to lose coherence. This is true in our case, and for that reason among others, revision of the Ohio State General Education program is in order: Indeed, it is indispensable for the overall success of the College of Arts and Sciences — and importantly, to the university, and all future Buckeyes.
Discussions of the revision are a prime occasion for connecting across campus to think together about our educational values and talk about how the Arts and Sciences GE might better serve the specific educational needs of all students, as it provides the foundation of a liberal general education. We are confident the GE will elevate and enrich the lives of all who walk the Oval.
A GE curriculum, broadly reflective of the expansive spectrum of academic inquiry available in the College of Arts and Sciences, suitably demonstrates faculty commitment to the ideals represented in the University motto, “Disciplina in Civitatem” or “Education for Citizenship.” University leadership and all who care about The Ohio State University have an obligation to design and shape the institution in ways that align with our core values. The humanities, arts, natural and mathematical sciences, and social and behavioral sciences provide unique contributions to the land-grant mission of The Ohio State University, increasing the quality of life and public discourse for all Ohioans, locally, nationally and beyond the nation’s borders.
In the College of Arts and Sciences, we leverage our diversity, tout our inclusiveness, and celebrate our excellence every day, because our faculty, staff, and students are generating knowledge that changes the world — with the support of alumni and friends around the globe.