Raising the banner for improved GER

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As we celebrate Charter Day 2012 and the College of William and Mary’s 319th birthday, let’s also celebrate the College’s most important hallmark: academic excellence.

The College typically admits the best and the brightest. But what will the College ensure they have learned upon graduation? A faculty committee studying the curriculum of the College will largely determine this for the future. This committee will report to the administration and the Board of Visitors in the spring.

The College’s curriculum has many interesting and challenging classes taught by excellent professors, as opposed to teaching assistants. But what are the students required to learn? Currently, in addition to the classes required for their major and a total of 120 credit hours, students must complete a series of General Education Requirements in various categories. Each category can be fulfilled by taking one class from an enormous list, many of which are very narrow and specialized.

Most of these specialty classes are undoubtedly interesting. However, does a broad selection of specialty courses give the student a general understanding of that area of knowledge?  For example, World Cultures and History is a GER category, but does a specialty course like History of Jazz leave the student with a core understanding of our shared historical experience? While a student may choose to take a course like American History Through 1877, a student could also choose a specialty course like German Memoirs of WWII, which would not give any general exposure to history at all.

Writing is a critical skill. However, writing is no longer a stand-alone GER or taught as a composition course as was done at the College until the early 1990s. Rather, writing is taught as one component of — you guessed it — specialty courses called “freshman seminars.” A true writing course is better suited for a GER.

The Society for the College encourages the faculty committee, the administration and the Board of Visitors to follow this logical methodology in reforming the curriculum. First, they must decide the fundamental purpose of an education at the College. We suggest that the purpose be to prepare students for citizen leadership at the highest levels of American society. They must then select areas of knowledge that serve to fulfill that purpose. These areas should cover a broad range. Finally, they need to choose one general course from each area to expose the students broadly to the essential thinkers, ideas and concepts in that area — this ensures that all students at the College share the same advanced understanding of that area.

The Society published a white paper, “The Liberal Arts at The College of William and Mary: A Common Curriculum For 21st Century Leaders,” which can be found on the Society’s website. The Society lays out a proposed purpose for the College, lists core areas of knowledge, and suggests one course to provide the essentials of each area.

Are there obstacles to the adoption of such a core curriculum? Sure. The same limited financial resources that strain the College and deny our professors reasonable raises also limit the College’s ability to make new hires or impose significant new workloads. Some small departments might find it difficult to ensure every student fits into that course, but we are not advocating enormous classrooms with hundreds of students. A large number of sections of the courses selected for the GERs would be required.

We believe this methodology and a restored core curriculum are worth working toward. Resources can be reallocated over time. New means to teach large numbers while ensuring direct professorial connections need to be considered, perhaps using technology akin to social media.

We encourage the College to embrace this logical methodology — state the College’s purpose, identify the core areas of human knowledge supporting that purpose, and ensure that every student is educated in the best of each area.

Now that would be a curriculum worthy of celebrating.