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Strong Foundations: Twelve Principles for Effective General Education Programs

By Participants in the Project on Strong Foundations for General Education
Association of American Colleges and Universities
ASIN: 0911696628
$18 (less for members and in quantity)

Reviewed by

Lois Feuer

Department of English
CSU Dominguez Hills


Discussing general education is always timely. In this year of budgetary crisis, faculty and administrators are more likely to focus on cost cutting than curricular reform. Yet much creative effort has gone into rethinking general education in the last few decades. If it is not to be wasted, we must hold fast to the notion of a strong general education program as a defining institutional characteristic and thus worthy of our attention and energy, even in difficult times. As the nation debates issues of war and peace, we look again at the educational foundation designed to enable our students to understand international conflict and to be informed, conscientious citizens of both nation and world. So it is appropriate to turn to a work such as this, which ably recapitulates the territory covered in the last twenty-five years and presents clear and persuasive guidance for continuing reform.

At fifty-seven pages of text, this book is short enough to be read by all faculty members involved in reforming and administering general education programs, as well as those who teach in them. And indeed it should be, for in these pages the authors (writing as a collaborative group) articulate in concise, lucid prose the principles essential to sustaining the vitality and continuity of general education programs. Such a collective reading assignment would be timely for the California State University, since virtually every campus of the twenty-three has recently reformed, revised, or developed its general education program against the background of such systemwide discussions as the Conference on the Baccalaureate and the Cornerstones initiative, and such systemwide currents as the impact of the IGETC transfer agreement or the reduction of the minimum number of units required for the B.A. degree. Since, as the authors note, reform efforts often fall prey to the competing demands of departments, both academic and professional, to budgetary constraints, and to sheer entropy, such periodic reminders of the underlying goals and best practices of general education are essential. This reminder, economic in its prose but generous in the diversity of its illustrative examples, performs this task in exemplary fashion.

The book emerged from a Lilly Foundation-supported effort by the Association of American Colleges to address the issue of how best to nurture the improvements stemming from a third era of general education reform (the first two are seen as having occurred after World Wars I and II). Its discussion is organized around the twelve principles derived by the members of this team effort, divided into two segments: the first six address the goal of articulating a compelling vision for general education, and the second its corollary, the need for forming an evolving community based on that vision. Strong general education programs, the authors assert, are built around these two goals. The authors first distinguish between the older concept of general education, described as a series of breadth or distribution requirements, and a newer one put in terms of student outcomes. This latter reflects, they believe, a consensus on the part of colleges across the country that students completing general education programs should be oriented to the expectations and rationale for general education, acquire specific skills of thought and expression, learn about another culture and the diversity of our own, integrate ideas from across disciplines, study some subjects (beyond their majors) at advanced levels, have an opportunity to pull together their learning in some sort of capstone experience, and experience a coherent course of study (iii-iv).

After a brief history of the curricular discussion that has produced this consensus, whose origin they trace to three significant reports issued on the state of university education in 1977, the authors proceed to provide this guide for "campus leaders interested in providing strong institutional foundations for general education programs" in a variety of settings. The authors collectively represent seventeen different institutions, and together asked three questions: (1) what characteristics do successful programs share? (2) what common strategies do they employ to secure their sustained vitality? and (3) what common problems do they experience? The twelve principles constitute their answers to these questions. Most of these principles are familiar to those laboring in the vineyards of general education, but they gain strength from being embedded in the national context of diverse institutions and from the articulation of their interconnectedness.

Principle One requires that general education programs have a coherent rationale and vision; these may be of various types--models emphasizing liberal education, individual identity, and education for citizenship in a democratic society are mentioned--but their common thread is the insight that the single most important requirement for colleges and universities is to "keep clearly in mind what the point of general education is" (3). Principle Two requires that the goal defined in response to Principle One be connected in significant ways to the institution's mission. The authors might well be describing California State University campuses when they note the tensions between traditional missions in higher education, competitive market conditions, and economic pressures, and these tensions are often manifest in general education programs that have fallen out of alignment with university missions over time.

Principle Three asserts the primacy of coherence as a goal of general education programs and describes four means of achieving such coherence: through the content of the program, as in a set of core, interdisciplinary courses that are taken by all students and that express the interrelatedness of knowledge, or capstone seminars that enable students to integrate prior coursework; through the skills acquired by students, such as intellectual and communication skills taught and reinforced throughout the general education curriculum; through an emphasis on processes or ways of knowing, including an understanding of the strengths and limitations of disciplinary perspectives; or through an emphasis on the personal development of qualities that faculty think important, such as habits of thought (e.g. tolerance) and interpersonal skills.

The authors assert in Principle Four that "strong general education programs are self-consciously value-based and teach social responsibility" through their implementation as well as in the courses themselves. Pointing to the "silent language" of programs, expressed through pedagogies and modes of evaluation, the project participants state that faculty must attend to this silent language to ensure that what we "collectively value and envision is embodied and highlighted." In what may be the most political assertion in an otherwise consensus-laden document, the authors state that

As part of their mission, then, general education programs have a common responsibility to confront multiple problems of the modern world in such a way that students complete our programs prepared not only in their disciplines and professions but also in their abilities to imagine and to construct better--more humane, just, and equitable--futures for themselves and for others. (20)

Principle Five, which urges faculty to attend to the life experiences of students, is particularly relevant to the California State University, with its population of working and part-time students for whom college cannot be the only center of their lives. This principle, "meeting students where they are and helping them find new perspectives on their lives in the curriculum," acknowledges the diverse realities of students' lives and builds on those realities by such devices as first-year experience courses (25).

Institutional realities--changing faculty, students, resources and financial exigencies--shape Principle Six, which requires that programs be designed to evolve over time, with a process for peer review that enables change and development when the original vision has faded. Such a need is particularly acute in the California State University, with its large cadre of adjunct faculty members teaching a good proportion of general education courses without having participated in their creation or development.

That particular reality is addressed also in Principle Seven, heading up the set of desirable program qualities grouped under the heading of "forming an evolving community based upon a vision of general education." The authors assert that strong general education programs foster and require community, among students, between faculty and students, and among faculty. Learning communities, collaborative learning practices, and small freshman and senior courses are among the elements fostering such interactions.

Strong faculty and administrative leadership is the eighth hallmark of strong general education programs, expressed, for example, in the hiring and promotion criteria for faculty. Crucial, the authors note, is funding earmarked for general education to protect it from departmental and disciplinary pressures and from competing institutional priorities. Clearly related to this need are Principle Nine, support from multiple constituencies both on and off campuses, and Principle Ten, support for faculty in the form of faculty development opportunities to engage in the tasks required of a general education teacher, such as teaching writing across the curriculum. The faculty are here seen as the most important resource of a general education program: meeting their need to acquire or expand their repertoire of teaching methods and course content demonstrates an institution's commitment to implementing a program which values the quality of instruction.

Principle Eleven, which calls for the integration of general education programs with the co-curricular experience of students, seems particularly well suited to the current emphasis on service learning, but embraces also internships, field observations, and other out-of-classroom experiences. The authors recognize the difficulty of so doing:

A distinct challenge to most general education programs at this time is to reconceive the co-curriculum in the broadest possible sense; to ask questions about maximizing the utility of general education as a meaningful frame of reference for organizing the varied lives of the diverse students on our campuses. (51)

Rather than attempting to insulate the curriculum from the competing demands of work, family, and community, our general education programs should integrate these concerns into their courses.

In their last principle, the authors call for ongoing self-reflection to assess and monitor progress in general education program reform, with the systematic use of assessment data being one aid to such self-reflection. The California State University would seem to have embraced this principle whole-heartedly, concomitant with its sister but sometimes competing goal of public accountability, though its implementation, of course, varies from campus to campus.

The book concludes by describing strong general education programs as transformative of the lives of students, faculty, and the institutions themselves. It ends with a call to universities and faculty to take what has been learned about curriculum and about students in the last few decades and put this knowledge to work in their institutions.

The great strength of this text, aside from the clarity of its thought and writing, is the wealth of illustrative examples from a wide array of institutions, large and small, public and private. The diversity of solutions to common challenges is itself a statement of tolerance and of the primacy of shared goals over uniform practice. San Josť State University is one of the institutions whose practices are cited, bespeaking the relevance of these issues to the California State University, though the variety of organizational structures and goals in American higher education is celebrated by implication through the many examples. An otherwise useful bibliography of significant discussions of general education highlights the sole weakness of this text, its 1994 publication date that prevents it from remarking on the wealth of work in this area since that time. It is, nonetheless, a compellingly well-considered guide through the thickets of general education reform. Any campus undertaking review of its general education program, and any faculty member new to such discussions, would be well served to begin here.

Posted February 5, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2003 by Lois Feuer.

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