Task Force on General Education
Meeting with Leon Botstein, President, Bard College
May 11, 2000
MZ asked Dr. Botstein if there were no General Education program, what would we have? On a campus with 16,000 undergraduates, 90% of whom are in the College of Letters and Science, that has a 12% attrition rate between studentsí first and second as well as second and third years, is GE necessary? Is it important?
LB replied that the primary reason for having a GE program is diagnostic in that there are limits to secondary education. It is something that needs to happen among all undergraduates. The first thing they should be getting out of a GE program is a theoretical command and analytical use of language. This has to be done outside of the writing program and integrated with content. The second thing, especially for non-scientists, is scientific literacy. Rather than try to understand the facts of science, they should understand science at the macro and micro levels. Third, students should learn to think historically and get a notion of how to construct a historic narrative; they need to know the difference between fact and fiction. The fourth item is philosophical. Students should learn about the normative ways of thinking, arguing, and debating about questions in an intelligent as opposed to a "gun-toting" way. Finally, there is an aesthetic dimension to the GE program. It is important to integrate active engagement with work of the imagination; in other words, it is not just learning but doing.
The question is how can this be achieved. Faculty realize that the preparation and teaching of these courses is very difficult. And faculty who teach GE courses are held in contempt by their colleagues for not doing real work. The structure of the university is such that the major is prioritized and whatever is left over, including GE, does not really matter. An intelligent undergraduate should take courses outside of their department. For example, in the old tradition of the language departments, students need to be trained to do something with the language that they are learning all it takes is coordination. The undergraduate becomes the victim of this "medieval system of feudal strongholds" and comes out of college knowing nothing. No university campus is willing to do anything to really change this about their undergraduate programs.
Students need to have common courses that encourage debate and discussion. They need to be taught how to analytically read and lead discussions. Faculty who are not experts can tell students that they are not necessarily scholars of that subject but can also direct them to where they can find these things out. This kind of learning gives students the courage and curiosity that tells them what they can and canít find out and where to go for information.
AK stated that a large part of the problem with GE lies in the majors and the large number of required courses within them. What can be done about this? LB replied that the solution to this problem is something very counterintuitive. For example, when restructuring the science majors at Bard, a visiting committee was brought in. These people had no vested interest and did not teach undergraduates. Many restructuring attempts have a lot to do with institutional constraints and it is best to involve those who have interests well beyond those of the institution. They were asked to imagine inventing a science undergraduate program from the beginning with the aid of a few people from the college. This could be done for all fields.
TC then raised the issue of students and the fact that they seem to have little knowledge and even fewer skills. The students on this campus do not have the attitudes, habits, and discipline to do the work required in their courses. LB answered that students, in reality, are the easiest to convert because they respond well to this teaching and the gaining of these skills. It is important not to make GE impractical sounding to the students and declare it useful for getting technical training. GE should be seen as an essential venture for a degree.
TC also asked what role media technologies might play in education. LB felt that the Internet and distance learning would only increase demand. Technology will put the lecture out of business, placing them on-line where students can ask questions and instantly look up items that they donít understand. These would be canned lectures but small group conversations would still not be possible without the physical connection. Media technologies will make life different but better; the reading of information will also be better. There will be a change in research technologies and because of technology, traditional university teaching will be more valued. Instructors can keep in touch with students better. Technology plays a very constructive rather than a destructive role.
In terms of suggestions for building media technology into the GE program, one element would be to have all papers submitted on-line. This way, they are not a private communication between the instructor and the student but available to the rest of the class as well. The criticisms, with the exception of the grade and more personal comments, should also be available publicly. A certain amount of distance learning hook-up with other campuses with real time communication should also be looked into. Access to materials, such as texts, should also be made available on-line allowing for less outdated materials. This puts the burden on the instructor of adapting new research skills. In the end, human contact is still crucial. One thing that is at risk, however, is memory. Students need to know how to read something and retain it; the internet threatens their motivation to do this. Also the multimedia should be on the computer rather than multimedia teaching. A student learns listening skills from the instructor and multimedia is a waste of time in the classroom.