All of the schools in the University of North Carolina system pay lip service to the importance of general education for their students – that is, fundamental courses to ensure that they graduate with a well-founded education. The truth of the matter is that only a few schools take general education seriously.
UNC-Charlotte is one of the campuses where general education is taken rather seriously. Unlike most of the other universities in the system, UNCC has a general education curriculum consisting mainly of basic courses. It guarantees that students will have a large area of shared educational experience and that they won’t waste much of their time on fluff courses.
The great weakness in general education at many UNC schools, especially the “flagships” of UNC and North Carolina State University, is that they give students huge smorgasbords of courses to choose from, many of which are narrow, trendy, and sometimes overtly political. Students can satisfy their requirements with an odd assortment of courses such as Leisure and American Lifestyles, Human Sexuality, History of Sports in Western Society, Introduction to Rock Music, Environmental Advocacy, Gender and Society, Science Fiction, Women in Literature, and many others. Courses like that may be academically worthwhile (or maybe not), but they don’t help to provide a solid educational foundation.
UNC-Charlotte has largely avoided that mistake. In social science, for example, students have to take at least one course from six basic courses in the disciplines of anthropology, geography, economics, political science, and sociology. Students are not given the option of taking the sorts of non-basic courses mentioned above.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there is also some not-so-good news about the UNCC general education program.
For one thing, there isn’t really any history requirement. All students have to take a course entitled Western Cultural and Historical Awareness, but UNCC will have 14 sections of that course this fall, and they vary markedly. One section will focus on “major events of American history,” while others center on ancient Mediterranean civilizations, the relationship between society, religion and the state in Western Europe, and “different perspectives on Western ideas of order and chaos, with particular focus on issues of diversity.”
American history has become a terribly neglected and misshapen subject in high schools and it ought to be covered in college. Sadly, most UNCC students won’t encounter it.
Another part of the UNCC curriculum is a course on Global and Intercultural Connections. The rationale for putting this in the general education program is the liberal notion that “people need to have the ability to understand the world from the point of view of more than one culture and analyze issues from a global perspective.” Now, studying other cultures isn’t pointless, but few UNCC students will benefit much from the brief look at another culture that the various sections of this course provide. They already know that the globe contains many people very different from ourselves. This is time that would be better spent on fundamental courses such as economics and logic that are far more apt to prove useful.
In addition, UNCC students must take one course that deals with “an important contemporary issue.” Students pick from five courses, including Literature and Culture, Science, Technology, and Society, and Issues of Health and Quality of Life. Those “issue” courses would make for good seminar material for juniors and seniors, but they don’t seem to be well-suited to the general education curriculum. Instead of this requirement, students would gain more from a course that took them into the classics of our literature.
In sum, UNCC students are not given the latitude to take off-the-wall courses for their general education requirements that students are at several other UNC universities. But still it is quite possible for them to graduate without ever having taken a course in U.S. history or the great works of literature in English; without having studied the workings of our economy or political institutions; without any background in logic or philosophy. The university should fill in those gaps.
Until it does, it falls to parents to assume the leadership role. They should become involved in the course decisions of their children in college, trying to direct them toward courses that fill important educational needs. Tell them to go for the educational main dishes and forget about the Jello and twinkies.