General Education in Higher Education

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As American higher education moved from institutions that promoted learning for learning's sake to institutions that prepare individuals for work and careers, new approaches in college and university curriculum development became necessary. One significant evolution was the movement away from the classical, European model of liberal education to the development of a narrower, more selective model of liberal studies, that has become known in American colleges and universities as general education.

The Difference between Liberal Education and General Education

The original mission of American higher education was to provide a liberal education based on the European model of classical education. In the liberal education model, college students became well versed in classic literary works, philosophy, foreign languages, rhetoric, and logic. This model stressed the importance of a broad base of education that encouraged an appreciation of knowledge, an ability to think and solve problems, and a desire to improve society. American liberal arts colleges and universities most closely resemble this traditional model of liberal education.

In the late eighteenth century, however, social forces in American society began calling for a more utilitarian and practical education that would prepare students for work upon graduation. State normal schools emerged to prepare teachers for jobs in American schools. In addition, business schools and other vocational preparation programs became more popular. In 1862 the Morrill Act further pushed this utilitarian model by providing federal money to land-grant institutions chosen to develop agricultural and technical programs. By the late 1800s, students on many campuses had the ability to choose courses freely, without requirements, and could now choose a concentration, or major, in one particular field of study. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many work-oriented fields such as teaching, business, engineering, and nursing had made their way into the four-year college and university curriculum. Vocational and practical education was now a major component of American higher education.

In the mid-twentieth century, a new movement for the revitalization of liberal education began. A great debate emerged between those in higher education who supported the movement toward specialized and vocational preparation and those who felt that this push to focus on a particular field was leading to overspecialized and narrow areas of study that would be of little use as careers and technology changed. Many supporters of liberal education also argued that specialized study did not contribute positively to the development of society. In 1947, as the debate became more heated, the President's Commission on Higher Education called for the development of a balance between "specialized training on the one hand, aiming at a thousand different careers" and a general curriculum that fosters "the transmission of a common cultural heritage toward common citizenship on the other" (p. 49).

Recognizing the importance of vocational training but still valuing the significance of classical education, many colleges and universities began to develop a series or set of courses that all students attending their institution would take prior to graduation. This set of courses became known as general education, sometimes referred to as a core curriculum. This model of curriculum has come to exist as a fundamental component of American higher education. According to Joan Stark and Lisa Lattuca, the American Council on Education found that in 1990 over 85 percent of American colleges and universities required all students to complete some sort of general education requirements.

The Goals of General Education

General education emerged in response to changing societal needs and the tension between classical liberal education and more practical or specialized education. The primary goal of general education is to provide a broad, yet focused, survey of courses that will promote critical thinking and increase students' awareness of the world around them. On many campuses, general education's purpose serves as a foundation for technical or vocational training, fostering in students the ability to think beyond their areas of specialization. Many faculty members and administrators on college and university campuses hope that requiring a set of specific courses will encourage students to make connections across disciplines and between formal course instruction and informal learning experiences outside the classroom.

General education requirements vary significantly from one institution to another. These expectations, however, often stem from the way in which different institutions answer the same guiding questions, such as: ideally, what knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes should graduates of the institution possess upon completion of their degree? And, how should the curriculum be designed to meet this goal? The variation in general education requirements stems from the broad array of institutional missions and goals and, accordingly, the many ways these broad questions are answered by the hundreds of American colleges and universities.

More important than specific requirements for general education is the time given by institutions to intentional thought, discussion, and development of general education curriculum. Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini (1991) affirmed this notion when they discovered that the greatest gains in students' ability to think critically were found at institutions with courses specifically designed to meet general education requirements. Even knowing this, however, extensive disagreement continues to exist among members of college and university communities regarding the identification of fundamental components and requirements of a general education curriculum. This continuing disagreement can lead to a tedious and lengthy debate, resulting in slow and difficult change on most campuses. The importance of general education was affirmed in a national study conducted by Ernest Boyer for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1987). Boyer and his colleagues found that approximately 75 percent of undergraduates in American colleges and universities felt that general education courses "added to the enrichment of other courses" and "helped prepare [them] for lifelong learning" (p. 85).

A final goal, espoused by many supporters of general education, is that all students should have a common experience or be exposed to a particular set of knowledge. It is not uncommon in the early twenty-first century to find colleges and universities that provide required reading lists to all incoming students. These readings are often incorporated in the general education curriculum and provide a common foundation and experience for that cohort of students. These common learning experiences often emerge in discussions throughout students' experiences at that institution and continue into their lives beyond the collegiate experience. This approach to general education relates to the primary goal of general education stated earlier: to make connections between formal course instruction and informal learning experiences outside the classroom.

Typical Characteristics of General Education

Although specific requirements may vary among American colleges and universities, there are characteristics common to general education across institutions. Typically, general education does not emphasize practical knowledge or research skills. The emphasis of general education is to help students understand that they are not individuals who stand apart from society but rather one person living in community with others in a greater society. As Boyer eloquently wrote, general education "is significant when it shows us who we are as individuals and as citizens, and touches the hopes and fears that make each of us both unique beings and a part of corporate humanity" (p. 98). This level of understanding is often achieved through the weaving of courses across a variety of disciplines.

In order to foster this understanding of a broad picture of society and to lay a foundation upon which all else is built, general education requirements are often taken during the first few semesters of the college experience. Students on many campuses are given a set of courses from which they can choose specific classes that will fulfill specific requirements. Some general education requirements, however, become prerequisites for upper level courses so that students enter these classes with a common level of knowledge and understanding. An additional benefit of general education courses is that students tend to recognize others taking the same courses and establish friendships during those first few semesters that extend beyond the classroom and often last a lifetime.

With an increasing number of students attending two-year institutions and more students transferring to and among four-year colleges and universities, it has become more critical for colleges and universities to recognize and identify courses that fulfill general education requirements. Usually, courses such as English, mathematics, and foreign languages are transferable across institutions. Some courses directly align with and meet general education requirements, while other courses are accepted as electives but still count toward graduation credit. This change has made it easier and more financially possible for students to move among institutions without penalty. Many colleges and universities, however, do limit the total number of credits that they allow to transfer in order for students to receive the quality education desired by the institution.

Typical Requirements

A broad array of choices exist in general education across American colleges and universities. Some institutions follow a very prescribed and specific set of courses, whereas many others offer a broad spectrum of courses from which students select "some of these and some of those," a method often referred to as cafeteria-style.

One specific requirement that tends to remain constant across most institutions is a proficiency in English. Most colleges and universities agree that a fundamental component of being well educated is the ability to read and write. Thus, regardless of students' chosen fields, almost every college and university requires coursework in English literature and composition. Even professors of mathematics and engineering have stressed the importance of students being able to express themselves in the written and spoken word. Beyond this one component, requirements do vary with some overlapping expectations among colleges and universities.

According to Stark and Lattuca, by the mid-1980s most students in American colleges and universities (over 60%) were required to take courses in English and mathematics. Additionally, 45 percent of all institutions require courses in Western or world civilizations. Beyond these more common requirements, some institutions also require coursework, at least at an introductory level, in laboratory sciences such as biology or chemistry, and in social sciences such as psychology, sociology, or political science. Some also require the study of a foreign language.

As noted earlier, over 85 percent of American colleges and universities have some sort of general education requirements for their undergraduate students. Stark and Lattuca noted that typical students at four-year institutions spend 33 to 40 percent of their studies meeting general education requirements. And, although debate continues regarding which courses should be considered critical in the development of educated graduates prepared for life beyond college, general education itself is firmly grounded in the modern American collegiate experience. Some colleges maintain a broad array of choices that satisfy general education requirements, whereas others are very specific with their curriculum. Many institutions have also been very successful at creating interdisciplinary courses that incorporate material and perspectives from a wide variety of disciplines; some of these courses have become quite popular and successful at institutions across the United States. Regardless of institutional choice, with such varying expectations from one institution to another, it is critical that students understand what is expected of them in order to develop a successful approach to their college studies.

See also: Academic Major, The; Curriculum, Higher Education, subentry on National Reports on the Undergraduate Curriculum.


Boyer, Ernest. 1987. College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Pascarella, Ernest T., and Terenzini, Patrick T. 1991. How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

President's Commission on Higher Education. 1948. Higher Education for American Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

Stark, Joan, and Lattuca, Lisa. 1997. Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Molly Black Duesterhaus

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General Education in Higher Education

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General Education in Higher Education