Raising the banner for improved GER

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.


  1. Read the Society’s white paper on the curriculum yourself at http://www.SocietyfortheCollege.org

    It is entitled, “The Liberal Arts at The College of William and Mary: A Common Curriculum For 21st Century Leaders.” 

    At the top, it says:
    “The mission of the College is to prepare young men and women to assume positions of leadership at the highest levels of our society.The undergraduate curriculum at the College must be designed to ensure the accomplishment of that mission.”

  2. More important information as the College considers what courses to select to Fulfil G.E.R.s, from Fortune Magazine.    The Fortune Article is reprinted below.  The Report on what skills are needed from Higher Ed is at this website:  http://www.woodsbagot.com/en/Pages/BusinessSchoolResearch.aspx

    If W&M grads are expected to lead, advance, they need skills from Higher Ed that the Society’s proposed core curriculum would fulfill.

    Executives to new grads: Shape up!February 1, 2012: 10:20 AM ET Most senior managers are unimpressed with the entry-level job applicants they’re seeing, reports a new survey.
    By Anne Fisher, contributor FORTUNE MAGAZINE
    Note to recent college grads and the Class of 2012: You may not be as ready for the working world as you think you are. At least, that’s the opinion of about 500 senior managers and C-suite executives in a study by Global Strategy Group, on behalf of worldwide architectural firm Woods Bagot.In all, a 65% majority of business leaders say young people applying for jobs at their companies right out of college are only “somewhat” prepared for success in business, with 40% of C-suite executives saying they are “not prepared at all.” Not only that, but even those who get hired anyway may not rise very far. Almost half (47%) of C-suite executives believe that fewer than one-quarter (21%) of new grads have the skills they’ll need to advance past entry-level jobs.And what skills might those be? The most sought-after are problem-solving (49% ranked it No. 1), collaboration (43%), and critical thinking (36%). Also in demand is the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively in writing (31%). Technology and social media skills came in at rock bottom on the list, valued highly by only a tiny 5% minority of senior managers. The kicker: According to the poll, new grads fall far short of the mark in every one of these areas — except tech savvy, the least desired.Jeffrey Holmes, principal at Woods Bagot, notes “an interesting disconnect”: “Despite a widespread impression that social media make people better at communicating and collaborating, that’s apparently not the case.” Why not? “Being adept at using social media is like ‘show and tell.’ It’s mostly one-way communication, with less emphasis on taking a flood of information and turning it into useful knowledge,” Holmes says.”Companies need people who can synthesize information and apply it to business problems. I see this even at our own firm,” he adds. “There’s less room for new hires who don’t have that ability. Technical skill is not enough.”The poll results reflect a relatively new, much loftier standard for entry-level hires. Not so long ago, newly minted bachelor’s degree holders joined companies with the understanding that complex skills like problem-solving and critical thinking were largely to be learned on the job, and would develop over time.”Now, companies want young people who walk in the door with these abilities,” Holmes notes. “The pace of business has accelerated to the point where expectations are much higher now.”And whose fault is it if most college grads haven’t got what it takes to get ahead? The executives surveyed overwhelmingly believe that academia has failed to keep up with the breakneck pace of change in the business world: More than three-quarters (77%) blame educators for new grads’ lack of readiness.

  3. No mention of changing the math GER? Seriously? The fact that kids can take math-powered flight as their ONLY math class for their entire undergrad career is ridiculous. Liberal Arts is about being well-rounded– not trying to avoid your weakest subject. Us math/science folk have to take a slew of writing-intensive history/culture/art classes, while the rest of the school cruises by in a class that is clearly made to accommodate their laziness.

  4. As a student who will have finished her GERs at the end of this year, I want to state the STRENGTH of our current system. WM is a place of liberal arts, of breadth and depth in learning. It is a place where incredibly high quality students feel that their best is not good enough. It is a place where students have massive amounts of trouble filling our already incredibly intense GER requirements. I do not know of a single school that has as many requirements as we currently do.

    This system seems similar to the curriculum in high school, where instead of picking a class that plays to the student’s strengths and interests, all requirements are thrown together in a set of classes called 9th grade Science, 12th Grade english.
    These types of general classes take up a lot of time in a student’s schedule and are unfair, throwing the english majors into the ring with pre-meds on the same science course. Student’s come to college to avoid this system.

    If WM were to adopt this change it would hurt us as a liberal arts school, not help us.
    It would prevent our intro-level classes from being intellectually engaging places of debate, where everyone there wants to be there, and everyone sees the point of the class into a high school class, where some people are genuinely interested, but most are suffering and counting down the days until its over.
    It would help our ranking on that stupid “what are your kids learning” website that gave our core curriculum a C. Well guess what? Its just some silly website. It gave plenty of the ivies C or below.
    Brown has no core curriculum, would you say it was a sub-par school?

    And furthermore: If this school tried to make calculus a requirement, I wouldn’t have applied. If it tried to change the curriculum before I graduate, thus making my suffering through lab science all for naught? You could kiss my Out of State tuition, near-perfect ACT score, and shameless love goodbye.


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