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Clarion Call

UNC schools promise strong general education, but do they deliver?

Aug. 27th, 2003
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Suppose that you have dropped your son or daughter off at one of the campuses of the University of North Carolina system. You have plenty to worry about: housing, roommates, clothing, money, and so forth. It’s quite a load.

At the risk of further depressing you, there’s one more thing that you should be worrying about, but probably aren’t. That is the college curriculum. Every one of the campuses of the UNC system pays lips service to the idea of giving every student a strong, well-rounded general education in addition to his or her major, but most of them don’t really guarantee it. If you are coasting along on assurances that the school you have chosen will give your child a good educational foundation, you’d better take another look.

The traditional core curriculum that distinguished our higher education system in the past — required courses in literature, American history and government, science, college-level mathematics, and fundamental courses in the social sciences and fine arts — has been abandoned by most colleges and universities in the country. The UNC system is no different. Instead of a real core curriculum, most have adopted the “distribution requirements” approach, wherein students must take a course or two in each of several different academic fields.

In the UNC system, only three schools still have a core curriculum of key courses that all students take: Elizabeth City State, North Carolina Central, and Winston-Salem State.

At the other UNC schools, mandatory courses are rare. Students fulfill most of their general education requirements by choosing from lists (sometimes prodigious lists) of courses that qualify. The problem is that many of the courses are far from the kind that should be regarded as providing the student’s general education. Many are overly specialized; some are politically-charged; others are just educational cotton candy. Giving students such a range of choice not only eliminates the possibility of their benefiting from a shared educational experience, but also means that many will graduate without ever having taken the courses that are key to a well-rounded education.

Let’s look at some examples.

A student attending Appalachian State has to take four humanities courses, of which at least one must be a literature course and one a fine arts course. This requirement could be fulfilled with some excellent and thoroughly appropriate courses such as English Literature, American Literature, Arts and Ideas, Introduction to Philosophy, and Logic. But it could just as well be filled with African-American Literature, Modern Studies, Introduction to Film, Introduction to Women’s Studies, History of Rock Music or Religions of Asia. Meat and potatoes, or side dishes and desserts? The university is completely indifferent.

At UNC-Greensboro, students have to complete two courses in Social and Behavioral Sciences. They could choose such worthwhile courses as Introduction to Economics, American Politics, or General Psychology — or they could fulfill the requirement with the likes of Sociocultural Analyses of Sport and Exercise, Human Sexuality, Personal Health, or Leisure and American Lifestyles. Any two will do.

Western Carolina students have to take just one history course. It could be American History, but equally good (in fulfilling the requirement, at least) are Lunatics, Dreamers, and Ordinary People: Biography in American History, Ancient Greece and Rome, or Religion and Science. Those latter three courses are probably very good, but shouldn’t students become familiar with the history of their own nation (which most high schools now shamefully neglect) before taking more esoteric courses?

North Carolina State spreads a dazzling array of courses before its students for each of its general education requirements. To satisfy the “Science, Technology and Society Perspective,” students have more than fifty courses available, including Science Fiction, American Parks, Parkways and Estates, Women and Gender in Science and Technology and Textiles and Society. In Humanities and Social Sciences, students have to take seven courses — from more than 200 possibilities. Some of the courses appear exemplary (Introduction to Shakespeare, Western Civilization, and Practical Reasoning, for example), but others are hardly the stuff of general education, such as Introduction to History of West Africa, Postmodernism, The Buddhist Traditions, Religious Cults, Sects, and Minority Faiths in America, History of Film to 1940, Women in Music, Psychology of Gender, Race in U.S. Politics, France in the Old Regime and Sexuality and Values.

Finally, at Chapel Hill, students have a prodigious smorgasbord of course offerings to choose from in order to satisfy their general education requirements. Hundreds of courses are open to UNC students that count towards their requirements. Naturally, many are unobjectionable. But many others are too specialized, politicized, or academically dubious for general education credit. Some examples: Environmental Advocacy, Literature and Cultural Diversity, Introduction to Rock Music, Introduction to Country Music, Sex and Gender in Society, Diversity and Post-1945 World History, Hegel, Marx, and the Philosophical Critique of Society, and Social and Economic Justice.

How much different things are at some of the smaller campuses. At Elizabeth City State, for instance, about all the choosing students do is to decide whether to take their two social science courses in basic sociology, basic political science, basic geography, or basic economics. The rest of the general education curriculum is set out for the student, and it consists of nothing but fundamental courses.

Conclusion: with only a few exceptions, the administrators at the schools of the UNC system talk a good game when it comes to general education, but don’t come through. One of the hallmarks of modern intellectualdom is its refusal to say that anything is more important than anything else. American History or History of West Africa? Just let the student decide. Shakespeare or Hispanic Literature? Let the student decide. Logic or Leisure and American Lifestyles? Let the student decide.

Since the administrators won’t make such judgments, parents or other concerned family members should. They need to step in and strongly encourage the student to take courses that will add up to a good, fundamental education.

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