Cartwright’s Committee on Curriculum: General Education Requirements

As introduced in last week’s issue of The Lawrentian, this column is about curriculum at Lawrence, or more specifically: Why is our curriculum the way it is? Each week, I’ll engage faculty, staff and students in a conversation on a particular topic or debate, and this week, we’re talking about GERs.

After a students’ choice of degree and major, GERs are supposedly the strongest influence on a person’s higher education. For years—before the 1990s—liberal arts colleges were known for strenuous general education requirements that pushed students to expand the breadth of their understanding. Majors, on the other hand, offered depth and disciplinary methods for a given field of study.

However, as with all aspects of “the liberal arts,” generational interpretation of what defines a strong education come and go with time. At Lawrence, our GERs now reflect little of the broad, interdisciplinary education, the admissions and communications offices so often tout. For distribution requirements, we need just one course in every division. For writing and speaking intensives, we’re only encouraged to take one or the other. I’d like to know who came up with the logic that a student should only have to practice writing or speaking, not both. And for issues like diversity, global perspectives and quantitative understanding, our current requirements only say we need one course for each competency.

In other words, Lawrence’s GERs set up categories of breadth and claim that as long as they get a dose of each, students will graduate with a broad education. I believe this demonstrates what I call institutionalized wishful thinking.

Of course, I don’t mean to act like Lawrence is a terrible school for having such loose standards of the liberal arts; my veins really do run blue and white. Instead, this week, I aim to point out that Lawrence’s curriculum is on autopilot—and we’re not the only ones. Most national liberal arts colleges that still call their requirements “GERs” follow Lawrence’s pattern. Williams, Middlebury, Amherst, and Grinnell all have very similar patterns of requirement that tend to favor students’ participation in multiple specialized areas—like majors, minors, Innovation & Entrepreneurship program, study abroad options, etc.—rather than requiring a broad foundational approach to education.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, many of these curricular changes occurred during a national reorientation of the liberal arts that happened sometime in the 1990s. Those who rejected looser requirements began to define their curriculum differently. Now, Reed College has “The Educational Program” in which Reed requires that students take two courses from each of Reed’s five divisions (double that of Lawrence), and they leave their foreign language requirements up to individual departments. In another example, Goshen College has The Core, which consists of six required classes during the freshman year, an “intercultural thread” of five classes focused on global and diversity issues and four additional courses aimed at general interdisciplinary education. I might also mention that Goshen’s Convocation series is weekly, and they require that all students attend. Each of these institutions is an example of a successful reimagining of curriculum. They aren’t following the national trends and, in a sense, they are some of the thought-leaders of liberal arts education today.

So, why have Lawrence and other top liberal arts colleges chosen to go the autopilot route of loose, easy GERs? The answer begins with faculty. Now, more than ever, faculty must specialize their work intensively to gain tenure-track positions, and currently, liberal arts colleges even hire based on hyper-specific research interests. Many of these professors have border-bound interests, but they don’t necessarily extend to knowledge from other disciplines. In turn, today’s professors teach courses on their specialties on the border of disciplines, rather than developing classes that demonstrate their broad training in a mixture of backgrounds.

At Lawrence, a fine example of this exists surrounding the topic of global health. In recent years, the number of students interested in this topic has swelled to proportions never before seen. In biology, students can study parasitology with a focus on infectious disease issues. In anthropology, students can take medical anthropology, which also sits nearby global health ideologically. But in neither department are there professors who have studied widely enough to offer a full course on global health studies, which is a truly interdisciplinary field.

When colleges are filled with faculty who understand breadth, but don’t necessarily get the chance to practice it as professors, choices about curriculum are altered. Today, one of the reasons I like Lawrence is because I’ve gained a strong understanding of anthropology as an undergraduate major. However, when the best of kind of education at Lawrence is highly disciplinary, I do not think that as a school, we should pretend that we offer an intentionally interdisciplinary experience.