General Education

What is the minimum that colleges and universities should expect of their graduates? That question is what educators have been asking for decades if not centuries. Good faculty ask it of themselves every time they teach a class and wonder about it as they sit in graduation ceremonies.

Here’s my list of minimum expectations:

1) Critical Thinking: upon completing a university degree, college graduates are able to critically evaluate the assumptions, presuppositions, and arguments (both subtle and direct) embedded in expressions of thought and culture by individuals and societies.

2) Problem Solving: College graduates can solve problems creatively by drawing upon appropriate principles, methods, and examples from a variety of disciplines, predict possible consequences (positive and negative) of a range of potential actions, evaluate (if appropriate) possible solutions in an ethical framework, decide upon the best solution, and successfully plan and execute the chosen solution. Of course, one would hope they come in with those skills, but since many don’t, college educators must remediate when necessary and help our students extend their abilities in this area.

3) Effective Communication: College graduates can construct rational arguments based on solid evidence acquired from appropriate sources and through the use of the best available methods and can communicate those arguments clearly and concisely using sound rhetorical strategies in both speech and writing. Of course, students come to college with elements of these skills in place. As with any skill, practice makes better. Students must practice and refine these skills so that good communication skills comes second nature. They can stand up and speak well at the drop of a hat if necessary or sit down and compose a text, using proper grammar and spelling, that argues of point or narrates an event.

4) Aesthetic Analysis: College graduates have the ability to critically evaluate artistic expressions, including the fine arts, music, drama, literature, media, and human movement (i.e., dance, sports), through the use of political, sociological, anthropological and aesthetic theories.

5) Science and Technology: College graduates can critically evaluate developments in science, technology, and health on the basis of elementary principles, good scientific practices, and the proper interpretation of mathematical models and statistics.

6) Global Perspectives: College graduates are able to interpret and contextualize current events in light of historical, geographical, sociological, economic, and political contexts.

7) Information Literacy: College graduates are able to consult various sources of information and critically evaluate the information and its source for veracity, authenticity and usefulness. They are aware of the wide variety of sources available for gathering information including library reference areas, paper and electronic finding aids, government issued documents, paper and online periodicals, as well as material revealed by internet search engines and are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Of course college students learn many other things, but if they learned to do these across the board, I think we would all be pretty happy. Margaret Spellings would not be wondering if colleges were doing their job well enough for the federal government to fund them through student loans. Parents and students would know that their money was well spent. Employers would see increased productivity. That may be a little pie in sky, but I’m convinced this is doable. These expectations are reasonable and faculty and students should expect to accomplish them in the course of the college curriculum.