Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 693: General Education at ECU: Parental Caution Advised

All of the schools in the UNC system pay lip service to a general education program that is supposed to ensure that students graduate with a well-rounded, fundamental education in addition to their major courses. East Carolina University says it will “engender a broad liberal arts base” in its students.

That sounds good. But I have been examining the general education programs throughout the UNC system and find that most are rather weak, mainly because they allow students to choose from such a range of courses that they can easily avoid taking those that would be regarded as pillars of a college education.

In that regard, ECU is better than some – most notably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University – but still ECU doesn’t do enough to channel students into taking really useful, basic courses. Let’s take a look.

The general education program at ECU has only two mandatory courses, two English courses that stress writing. Similar courses are found at every UNC school, occasioned by the need to make up for the poor writing instruction at most high schools. Teaching college students to write is a regrettable necessity.

In math and science, students have to take one and two courses respectively. There’s no problem here, except that the math requirement can be satisfied with a course that is a rehashing of high school math concepts.

It’s in social science that we begin to see the problem. Students must take four courses from at least three different departments: Anthropology, Communications, Economics, Geography, History, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology. To be sure, there are quite a few fine, basic courses that students could choose, but they could just as well choose courses that are narrow, trendy, or of doubtful intellectual value – for example, Leisure in Society, History of Sports in Western Society, Geography of Recreation, Sociology of Human Sexuality, or Motherhood of God in Asian Traditions.

Is a course on the history of sports really just as good as a course on American history? I don’t think so, but ECU has no preference when it comes to satisfying the general education requirement.

We find the same thing in the humanities and fine arts. Students must take at least 10 semester hours, with at least one humanities course (literature, philosophy, and linguistics) and at least one fine arts course. Again, we find some excellent courses, such as Introduction to the Great Books and Music Appreciation. But students don’t have to take them if they prefer the likes of Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport, Latino Texts, or Introduction to Women’s Studies.

Will it be Shakespeare or Latino Texts? Logic or the Philosophy of Sport? It’s all up to the student.To complete the general education requirements, students must take at least three credits in Health and “Sport Science.” There’s nothing wrong with either, but why should universities devote limited student time to mandating non-academic, lifestyle courses?

When all is said and done, it is quite possible for ECU students to graduate without ever having taken a course in American history, a course covering the classics of our literature, the workings of our economic or political systems, logic, or the foundations of Western civilization. That “broad liberal arts base” the school says it aims for can be negated by capricious student choices.

It would be best if the administration at ECU (and other UNC campuses) were to decide that their general education program should be turned into a real core curriculum of essential courses. But that is most unlikely. To do that would be to offend many professors and departments whose courses would be deemed non-essential. Chancellors don’t want to stir up such a hornets’ nest.

Therefore, it necessarily falls to parents to provide the guidance that students need. If you have a child attending ECU – or almost any other college or university – you ought to sit down with him and go over the curricular choices. Encourage him to sign up for courses that will have lasting educational benefit, not just ones that are reputed to be fun or easy.

ECU might be thought of as a cafeteria. It offers nutritious main dishes as well as tasty, fattening desserts. Do your best to make sure that your student gets a good foundational education by eating main dishes most of the time, rather than the desserts.