The General Education Act: A Blueprint for Restoring America’s Foundational Knowledge and Civic Virtue

Americans always have drawn upon the history and the greatest books of Western civilization to inspire them to their greatest words and deeds. Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address echoed the medieval church reformer John Wycliffe when he spoke of government of the people, for the people and by the people. George Patton became the best American general of World War II by reading Homer and Shakespeare, and his field library during World War II included Caesar’s Commentaries, the Bible, and Kipling’s complete works. Modern movies such as 300 revive the memory of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae that preserved the freedom of the Greeks. Harry Truman summoned America to midwife the rebirth of Israel and said I am Cyrus to explain what he had done. Martin Luther’s words of faith, Here I stand; I can do no other, echo in the deeds of his namesake, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yet now far too few Americans know the history and ideals of their country, rooted in the deeper history of the West. Our K-12 schools stopped teaching what used to be the common reading of American students. Our universities abandoned common civic education for a system of distribution requirements that taught college students nothing in common, much less the history of America or the West.

America needs to resurrect the education system that taught us the sources of our ideals and institutions of liberty, civic virtue, and republican self-government, and the long conversation to examine fundamental moral and philosophical questions through a study of the history and the greatest books of Western civilization. We need to revive our common civic education to educate a new generation of Lincolns and Pattons, Trumans and Kings.

Some part of the solution will be a reform of K-12 social studies education. But another part must be a reform of our colleges and universities. Above all, our students need to learn as basic, a common knowledge of where we came from, what we love, and what we share.

The model General Education Act (GEA) can make that happen. The GEA, jointly drafted and published by the National Association of Scholars (NAS, where I work), the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and the Ethics & Public Policy Center (EPPC), restores a common civic education to the center of American public university education. The GEA reforms and replaces the failed system of cafeteria-style distribution requirements geared to faculty research specialties, rather than to the true requisites of liberal education.

The GEA first creates a new, independent School of General Education at the flagship state university, which will assume responsibility for all general education courses, and provides a three-year transition from the old system of general education to the new. GEA then specifies that the general education requirements at the flagship state university will consist of a core curriculum of thirteen courses, including Western History, Western Humanities, World Civilizations, United States History, United States Government, and United States Literature—in all comprising 42 semester hours. GEA finally states that the university may add no further general education requirements.

The creation of a School of General Education designed to revive the tradition of classical liberal education will constitute, for almost any public university that adopts this program, a fundamental shift in educational mission. This broad strategic reorientation will necessitate the discontinuance of some existing academic programs, including some currently existing tenure lines. It is financially irresponsible to reform general education substantially, by hiring new faculty with the expertise required to carry out that shift, without shrinking a comparable number of existing programs and faculty. The model GEA provides for these necessary staffing changes. The model also provides for some existing faculty to be granted appointments that would allow them to teach courses under the auspices of the new School of General Education. The key consideration in staffing will be expertise and interest in traditional liberal education.

The GEA achieves its goals in harmony with universities’ vital role to prepare students for careers and to ensure American prosperity.

  • The GEA’s specified core curriculum only includes 42 semester hours, which is very practicable for a bachelor’s degree. Indeed, public universities that use distribution requirements frequently impose far more onerous general education requirements on students. GEA’s core curriculum will reduce the burden of time and tuition on many students.
  • The GEA, moreover, recognizes that students pursuing a Bachelor of Science, as opposed to a Bachelor of Arts degree, frequently need an intensive professional preparation, and often have fewer free classes. We have reduced from 13 to 10 the number of required courses for students seeking a BS.
  • The GEA also allows universities to add up to two courses in a foreign language requirement. Universities should be free to add foreign language preparation to general education requirements—and free to decide that it is not necessary.

The three organizations have drafted the GEA so that it can be modified to suit different states. GEA uses phrases such as {governing board} to allow policymakers to select between university boards, state boards, or other bodies. The entire governance structure of the School of General Studies should be modified to fit local conditions.

A properly supported School of General Education can remake our public universities into what they once were—the keystones of the American republic.

Photo by Pawel Pajor Adobe Stock Asset ID#: 211365464


3 thoughts on “The General Education Act: A Blueprint for Restoring America’s Foundational Knowledge and Civic Virtue

    1. Shared governance is relatively new and largely without justification, particularly in public universities. It’s the same argument that both George Meaney and Franklin Roosevelt made against public sector unionization, that organizing against the public is unconscionable — governing against it is subversion.

      State universities exist to teach what the state needs taught, and not what its professors want to teach. A real example of this, somewhat dated, involved the UMass Amherst Computer Science Department, which wanted to continue teaching the older Pascal programing language, while Massachusetts industry desperately needed graduates who knew the newer C language. It literally took several large employers threatening to leave the Commonwealth to get C taught.

  1. First, I think that a lot of the technical majors ought to be converted to 5 year degrees instead of attempting to wedge humanities into an already full 8 semesters. Electrical Engineering comes to immediate mind (Nursing once *was* a 5 year degree) but I would also include Education, particularly with most of one semester spent student teaching.

    Second, it would be a College of General Education and not a “School” of General Education because “Schools” provide vocational training while “Colleges” provide education — examples include “Schools” of Law, Medicine, and Business Administration.

    Third, let’s look at the politicized gulags that our well-intended writing programs have become. Thirty years ago it was being openly admitted that they were being used to advance political agendas, and it’s even worse today.

    What makes anyone think that a College of General Education would be any better?!?

    The advantage of the old approach of having a core curriculum taught by professors in the respective fields (and within the traditional Department & College structure) was twofold. First, you had subject matter experts who weren’t teaching at the limits of their knowledge, and second, a student who found an interest in a particular subject had someone to discuss it with.

    For example, I’m thinking of a professor of Brazilian Literature who taught introductory classes and advanced classes. What this would do would be to force her to only teach introductory classes and be a member of the College of General Education, or remain in the College of Arts & Humanities and only teach advanced classes — and the good professors will chose the latter.

    Fourth, I don’t know if anyone has thought through the budget implications of this, but shifting a lot of humanities teaching budget lines to the new College of General Education will gut all the existing humanities departments at all but the largest universities. Think about the consequences of combining, say, History, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology all in the same department — you’re not going to have a Professor of American History anymore, there’s not going to be enough demand from just the advanced classes.

    A posting in what inevitably will be known as the “College of Freshman Education” will not draw serious scholars in any *one* of the 13 different subject areas, and budget-conscious administrators are going to be looking for people who can teach two or three *different* subjects amongst the 13. And over time, the true “cafeteria-style” education will be amongst the graduate students hoping to be hired in these colleges — they will take some grad courses in everything instead of concentrating on a specific singular subject.

    And that’s assuming that they actually have any knowledge of anything beyond the proper political mantras. I don’t see how the hiring will be any different from what it is today.

    That goes to my fifth point — the problem is the personnel. We are in the third generation of “Tenured Radicals” — the radicals of the 1960s have now largely retired, the second generation are now in their ’60s and starting to retire — higher education now is the third generation of radicals with so much intellectual inbreeding that I honestly doubt that many universities have people who *could* teach the desired curriculum, even if they wanted to.

    It’s like the railroads in the 1970s that were choked with their union rules. Railroads that had to still hire “Firemen” to shovel coal into Diesel engines that didn’t burn coal. Absent some plan to get rid of the politicized ideologues — and above all else, prevent them from hiring more — I don’t see how this proposal could be successful.

    I much prefer some sort of assessment as a graduation requirement — a cultural literacy test that one must pass in order to graduate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *