Essential Knowledge, Hold the Malarkey

Much of the reform talk about higher education these days is about degree programs: which ones are good or bad for getting a job, which ones are most likely to house politically subversive professors, and so on.

But general education may deserve the most attention. Gen-ed programs have some crucial functions, but very often perform them abysmally. When employers complain that graduates can’t write well — and they do — that’s a general-education problem. When they complain that graduates can’t reason well — and they do — that’s a general-education problem. When recent graduates don’t know how our government is supposed to work or how our economy works — and they voted for Obama by a wide margin — that’s a general-education problem.

Instead of providing students with what they really need to know, most schools offer a smorgasbord of frills and follies, with silly requirements for “diversity” or “sustainability.” UNC–Chapel Hill’s current general-education program has roughly 2,000 courses (it had almost twice that seven or eight years ago), including “First-Year Seminar: Yoga in Modern America: History, Belief, Commerce” and “The Folk Revival: The Singing Left in Mid-20th-Century America.”

In this week’s Clarion Call, I cut through the “malarkey” and come up with my own general-education program based on only essential skills and knowledge. A few schools already have something similar — smart employers should seek them out and hire their graduates.