Academic Senate

Op-Ed: Against “Ditch-Digging” in the 21st Century University

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Susan Gubernat (East Bay) - Member-at-Large, ASCSU

“What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.” - Henry David Thoreau (Journal)

“I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass…” - Walt Whitman (Song of Myself)

Like my heroes of 19th century American literature, Thoreau and Whitman, I’d urge the designers of the 21st century curriculum that defines a quality degree in higher education, to allow for the meandering pleasures of both mind and body. 

But with the pressures of “career-readiness,” with the so-called “completion” agenda, stricter unit limits, and the specter of performance-based funding looming over us these days, we at the CSU are often found defending our general education curriculum as vital to our students’ well-being—that is, why they need to study botany or metaphysics or introductory drawing or cultural anthropology, all for their own sakes, with no apparent connection between such coursework and the inevitable (and increasingly elusive) job offer upon graduation.

But wait. Maybe that’s not true at all. There are many higher-education leaders (both within and outside the CSU) who would differ with the presumption of the efficacy of a purely career-prep model of higher education, or of the attainment of a baccalaureate degree based solely on the accumulation of credits in skills-based courses. A case in point is the President of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU)  Carol Geary Schneider, who addressed the statewide Academic Senate in November. Schneider referred us to recent reports on the AACU’s own website, where employers themselves continue to emphasize how essential the breadth of a liberal education is in preparing students for the vicissitudes and challenges of today’s economy.

Many of the articles on the AACU website reiterate a common vision of the “high-quality” undergraduate degree. In “High-Quality Learning Involves More than a Major,” for example, it’s made clear that

“Above and beyond what students learn in their major fields—chemists must know chemistry and engineers must know engineering—a high-quality college education for the twenty-first century also should emphasize

  • broad learning about science, society, technology, human diversity, and global cultures and interdependence;
  • intellectual skills that support evidence-based reasoning and innovation—including analysis, communication, critical and creative thinking, quantitative fluency, information literacy, and collaborative problem solving; personal and social responsibility, including ethical reasoning, civic and democratic knowledge and engagement, global acumen, and the capacity to work productively with diverse people and perspectives;
  • integrative and adaptive learning, including the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to complex problems and new settings.”


Of course, such emphases are more than familiar to those of us teaching in the CSU, where the tenets of a liberal education in the arts and sciences, the humanities and social sciences, along with strong emphases in honoring diversity, and training in global and civic awareness and responsibility, are embodied in our general education curriculum.

Now more than ever, we need to educate those outside of our domain to recognize that preserving such breadth is not self-serving, not the mere preservation of so-called “boutique” courses that faculty have concocted to serve their own research interests and political agendas. The “boutique” epithet has been hurled all too often at liberal or general education; it is often code for an anti-intellectual, a-historical romanticizing of “the basics” that our colleagues in K-12 have long been battling as local public funding has been withdrawn from disciplines too often seen as dispensable; the arts come to mind, of course. But anything that might smack of the complex ways students learn how to be critical, creative, and contemplative has too often been in jeopardy.

What we should all fear is an ever-more stratifying class system of higher education, where those in public higher education are “prepared” for jobs, while, increasingly, those who can experience the benefits of a quality, private liberal arts education will have all the opportunities of exploring for themselves, right livelihoods, fulfilled and fulfilling lives.

So, what is it I wish for all our students in the CSU in 2014? Their own Walden Ponds. Their own “spear of summer grass.”