How it is hard to remove useless pap from GE curricula


The university curriculum evolves, and is a creature that is shaped by a variety of environmental forces tugging at it in different directions. Just like any other organism.

The curriculum is pulled by budgetary swings, administrative agendas, educational fads, and the politics of interdepartmental relations. Changes to GE happen, but are rarely optimal because they always are forged in compromise.

There’s is always the weight of past precedent, from prior circumstances, that weigh down the GE.

As a biologist, I see this as a university-scale example of genetic load.

J.B.S. Haldane coined the term “genetic load,” and mathematically expressed it. In a nutshell, for non-biologists, genetic load is the evolutionary baggage that you carry along with you as the result of natural selection on something else. As evolution improves on some traits, other non-adaptive ones often get packed for the trip as well. (No population of organisms is optimal in all respects, and deleterious mutations creep into the gene pool. An older post about genetic load is over at Sandwalk.)

At most universities with which I’m familiar, the General Education curriculum is weighed down with superfluous courses that were inserted at some point in the past but have lost their relevance or effectiveness. However, once these courses make it into the GE, then the courses stay there for good, because the become pets of the departments and faculty teaching them.

Eliminating a course from the GE is way harder than adding one. So, more and more courses get stacked on top of one another, often independent of their relevance or redundancy.

How do fix this problem? Well, don’t tinker with GE unless it’s broken. And when it is broken, then rebuild it from the ground up. I realize this is pretty much an impossible task. If someone knew how to fix GE, then GE wouldn’t be messed up at so many universities.

What do I mean by useless pap in GE? I’m a big supporter of a classic liberal arts education and I greatly value breadth. But, most “computing” requirements are out of date, and the implementation of writing courses sometimes doesn’t result in more or better writing. My university has some upper-division general education requirements in the sciences that make no sense to me at all, and the students seem to agree with me. Some courses are allowed for GE credit, while others would be great for GE but for political or historical reasons aren’t included.

Whenever someone wants to fix GE by mutating it, all the other stuff from decades ago sticks along for the ride. It’s a huge stinking mess, overloaded with units but short on a genuine broad-based education. At least, that’s how I see it at my place.

By the way, JBS Haldane was a top-flight ranconteur, and has taken to tweeting from the grave. He doesn’t tweet often, but he’s worth a follow.

2 thoughts on “How it is hard to remove useless pap from GE curricula

  1. I’m against GE entirely as it is typically implemented. I did my undergrad at Allegheny College, and they had it down. We took courses in a variety of topics that were skills based not topic based, we went in depth to skills in our field, we were well rounded by a system that required a major and a minor I’m different areas and then a number of credits to round it out.

    I’m at SUNY now, and their “silo” system is an example of GE done wrong, but at the community college level, I can’t do much.

  2. SUNY is like CSU in so many ways, so this isn’t too surprising to me. I think the problems aren’t so much in the notions for the courses, but the inconsistency in how they are implemented, and how over time, the courses themselves lose their relevance.

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