Today’s college students are tasked with a daunting and — for many — unfeasible mission: cobbling together a meaningful general education that will give them a coherent and interconnected understanding of the most essential knowledge. 

This task is daunting because of the general education landscape most students encounter. At present, most universities offer their students a fragmented and impoverished selection of unconnected courses. They refuse to clearly define what specific knowledge is essential for an educated person to know. Instead, they narrowly focus on training students to be generic “critical thinkers” and skilled workers. Higher education bureaucrats may pay lip service to other goals, such as forming students to be well-rounded human beings and upright citizens, but the design of their general education curricula tells a different story. 

At the average institution, students may fulfill most of their general education requirements by choosing from a vast array of course options. UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, doesn’t require all its undergraduates to take a course on US or Western history. Instead, it allows students to satisfy the university’s “Engagement with the Human Past” requirement by giving them nearly 500 course options from which they can choose — resembling more of a smorgasbord than an organized college curriculum. 

The scope of the courses themselves, furthermore, is often narrow, shallow, or ideological.  “Introduction to Food Studies: From Science to Society,” “Class, Race, and Inequality in America,” “Archaeology of Ancient Turkey,” and “Women and Gender in Latin American History,” are all examples of courses students may take to satisfy their history requirement. The result is a near curricular free-for-all that emphasizes “skills” but gives students little direction or structure. The university’s lack of guidance is deliberate; it boasts that its general education curriculum gives students a “roadmap” but allows them to “choose [their] own path.” 

The goal of general education, however, isn’t to fill students’ minds with a potpourri of unrelated, superficial, or esoteric facts. Such an education is undesirable for numerous reasons. For one, findings from cognitive science suggest that the development of key thinking and learning skills is dependent on the possession of connected and related knowledge. Abstract cognitive skills are not developed in the abstract. Rather, it is necessary for students to gain knowledge of specific and connected subject matter — “background knowledge” — if they are to learn how to think well.

“Cognitive processes (such as analyzing, synthesizing, and critiquing) cannot operate alone,” says cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? “They need background knowledge to make them work.”

Students will comprehend the material they read much better if they already have an established baseline of relevant background knowledge. 

If a primary goal of higher education is to make students rigorous thinkers and effective learners, general education must provide a firm foundation of essential knowledge that will support students’ intellectual development. 

It is not sufficient, however, for the knowledge to be coherent and connected. Equally important are the actual content and ideas contained in the knowledge. While many knowledge traditions present a coherent narrative of ideas and discoveries, not every knowledge tradition is equally valuable for students to learn. Colleges and universities should teach students about the ideas, history, and discoveries that form the basis of American society: the Western intellectual tradition. Immersion in this body of thought will prepare students to be serious thinkers and conscientious citizens.

A general education program centered on the Western canon is uniquely capable of producing individual and societal flourishing for the following reasons, which are explored in greater depth in the Martin Center’s new report Making General Education Meaningful

  1. The Western canon allows students to understand the history of mankind’s greatest ideas and achievements and bring them to bear on contemporary problems.
  1. The Western canon contains models of human excellence.
  1. The Western canon contains the specific ideas that are necessary for students to understand themselves as Americans — liberty, natural rights, republicanism, democracy, and constitutional theory. This shared cultural knowledge promotes social unity.

To study the West is to confront the development of philosophical, literary, historical, and scientific thought from the dawn of civilization to the present. It gives students a comprehensive, rigorous, and meaningful introduction to mankind’s most important ideas. And it makes them participants in the centuries-old conversation about the most pressing questions, such as “Is there objective truth?” or “What is the good?” Participation in this conversation — which strengthens students’ reasoning through a greater understanding of the world — can help cultivate the civic and intellectual virtues necessary for responsible citizenship. 

Finally, Americans can’t fully understand themselves as Americans without a familiarity with the West. Shared cultural knowledge among citizens is crucial for social unity. From a societal perspective, higher education’s failure to teach students their cultural inheritance weakens the social fabric. One need only look at the current state of the country. In today’s polarized times, many Americans dislike one another, distrust their leaders, and often exhibit scorn for their country. Patriotism is often seen as a vice, not a virtue.

Education theorist E.D. Hirsch argues in his book How to Educate a Citizen that “our loss of cohesion is partly owing to a loss of commonality in what we teach and therefore in what we know.” A country can function properly, he says, “only if people understand one another.” While he grants that education isn’t the only cause of the current national divide, he offers that “only an educated and patriotic citizenry” can restore national unity. 

Civic and intellectual disintegration isn’t inevitable. As Hirsch says, the way forward is through education. General education is in a state of disrepair, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. I invite you to read the Martin Center’s new report on general education, which includes a recommended curriculum that we think vastly improves on what most colleges and universities offer today.