Here’s an interesting discussion of George Washington’s new General Education requirements, which appear to actively discourage foreign language study. I’d like to make a couple of observations:
1. For a variety of reasons, this seems to be a move in the wrong direction. It’s not like American students aren’t already insular enough. Language studies are part of the longstanding core of the liberal arts, and I’m suspicious of ideas that we can simply disappear that with no consequences.
2. I’m also somewhat suspicious of the switch to “learning outcomes” rather than on subjects. Well, learning outcomes are good, but subjects are important. Some basic knowledge of history, science, mathematics, philosophy, economics and a few other things are really essential. A student who graduates from college with a certification that they can do critical thinking but without knowledge in any of those areas may very well be unable to actually make judgments or do any kind of critical thinking in these areas. In a sense, I’m concerned about the same issues that were raised by E. D. Hirsh for earlier education and the need for knowledge as background for skills. The problem should be less acute at the college level, but based on my students it may not be. And assessing these outcomes has its own potential for ambiguity or even bias.
3. From looking at several of the criteria’s descriptions, I wonder if this is more about an ideological shift than a pedagogical one. Take for example, global perspective:
A global perspectives course must teach students to analyze “the ways in which institutions, practices, and problems transcend national and regional boundaries or link those regions and boundaries together. A global perspective might include, but is not restricted to: the analysis of multi-national or multi-regional efforts to address global problems such as climate change or poverty; the examination of the global circulation of ideas and media images; the global impact of religions; or the impact of diasporic movements of peoples (past or present).”
While I can see some potentially worthwhile developments of these themes, I can also see the possibility of some rather weak and problematic ones. What if there is no global solution? What if the global solution was military (e.g., World War 2)? Will failures of such multi-lateral efforts be taken seriously (the format of the objective seems biased toward positive outcomes)?
At the end of the day, I’m a bit of an unrepentant liberal arts sort of guy. So maybe I’m just worried about that. But I do wonder where we go as we create increasingly amorphous standards that reflect an increasingly fragmented academy. Subject/content does matter.