In the middle 1980s Southeast’s then chief academic officer (whose title is Provost) formed the second of two committees charged with the onerous task of examining Southeast’s general education program that had been in place since 1963. That program consisted of a series of courses that students were required to take (e.g., biology, national and state government, English composition), and the program was based on institutional decisions about what an educated human being should know. Unfortunately that earlier committee failed in its task. The new group decided to focus its attention not on what educated humans should know but rather on what should educated humans be able to do. What skills would serve students well regardless of their majors? They surveyed personnel directors of Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and other non-profit agencies, asking them about the skills they seek in their new hires. Those skills became the basis of a new proposed general education program that came to be known as University Studies.
The committee structured the program so that students would indeed acquire more knowledge, but they would do so while practicing the same set of skills in every course they took, whether they were in science, humanities, or the arts. The subject matter would simply be the vehicle that caused students to practice the skills. They also arranged the program so that students would take University Studies courses throughout their baccalaureate studies at Southeast (detailed subsequently). Just as there is a first-year seminar, there is a senior seminar, too. Both are interdisciplinary, that is, they connect what would otherwise be disparate disciplines or subjects in one course. “The Mathematics of Art” is an example of a first-year theme while seniors may opt to take “Ethics of Business” in their programs of study.
Just what are these skills so desired by employers? Well, there are nine, we have determined, and these are the University Studies Objectives found in the front of the University Studies Handbook or in the section of the University Bulletin on University Studies or on Southeast's University Studies Web site. Here is an annotated list of the nine University Studies objectives. Incidentally (and parenthetically), the numbers on these objectives are arbitrary, that is, Objective No. 1 is not more important than No. 5 nor is No. 9 the least important. The numbers are just convenient “handles” to refer to them.
- Demonstrate the ability to locate and gather information.
This objective addresses the ways to search for, find, and retrieve the ever-increasing information available in a technological society. We want students to be resourceful, to know several means of finding information, including scientific research, pertinent to the issue at hand, means that go beyond “Google.com”.
- Demonstrate capabilities for critical thinking, reasoning, and analyzing.
Students today cannot learn all the information that is produced. Therefore, they must be able to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information. They must be able to effectively process large amounts of information, sort it, distill it, pick out the most usable pieces of data, and connect new knowledge to previously known knowledge. In other words, once students find information, can they determine if it is any good, how reliable the evidence is, how sound the methodology that produced the results presented? Furthermore, can students see both (or all) sides of an issue? We want students to learn to anticipate what their opposition might propose in order to be able to defeat their assertions and defend their own positions.
- Demonstrate effective communication skills.
The ability to understand and manipulate verbal and mathematical symbols is a fundamental requirement in any society, especially one that thrives upon the free exchange of ideas and information. Functional literacy is not the goal; rather, students must attain a high level of proficiency in order to be effective and happy citizens. I ask students to imagine that they have secured that first job, and their supervisor asks them to find some information about an issue facing the company, agency, or organization and to report subsequently to the supervisor what they found and whether that information is any good or not. After they impress the supervisor with their research and critical thinking skills, the supervisor may well ask them to prepare a written report on the matter and to present it to the Board of Directors. This scenario is not fantasy: it happens frequently. It is an opportunity for new hires to prove themselves in the eyes of their employers. If students can do these skills well, it is very likely that they will be able to be successful (that is, get promoted!) in their chosen professions. At Southeast, students will practice these communication skills over and over again, both in person and in print, in courses in their majors and in their University Studies courses.
- Demonstrate an understanding of human experiences and the ability to relate them
to the present.
The degree to which individuals and societies assimilate the accrued knowledge of previous generations is indicative of the degree to which they will be able to use their creative and intellectual abilities to enrich their lives and the culture of which they are a part. Many of us refer to this as the “history objective,” but that is way too simplistic for what this objective addresses. Indeed, history is involved, but we want students to go beyond the study of history to the study of change. After all, change is the only constant in our lives! If we understand what a situation used to be in the past, then and only then can we better understand how it is presently, and perhaps then begin to make informed, reasonable predictions about the future.
- Demonstrate an understanding of various cultures and their interrelationships.
Understanding how other people live and think gives one a broader base of experience upon which to draw in the quest to become educated. As we become more proficient in information gathering, critical thinking, communication, and understanding our past, our need to understand other cultures becomes greater. My colleague, friend, and predecessor in this position, Dr. Dale Haskell, has commented that you, dear reader, are not the only kind of good person on earth. In fact there are many kinds of good persons on earth, and they are so different from you (and me) that it becomes a contrast rather than a comparison. At Southeast, we have employees from every populated continent on earth. We have students from virtually all 50 states, and students from upwards of 40 different countries. It is truly a cosmopolitan place, and this objective causes us to consider the differences among us that really matter and to appreciate, even celebrate those differences. If everyone were like me (perish the thought!), it would be a bland, crazy, boring, ditzy place, for sure.
- Demonstrate the ability to integrate the breadth and diversity of knowledge and
This objective deals not merely with the possession of isolated facts and basic concepts, but also the correlation and synthesis of disparate knowledge into a coherent, meaningful whole. Persons in leadership roles must do this. Effective leaders can bring all their knowledge and expertise and experience to bear on the problem at hand, and creative leaders can use ideas and concepts they learned that others may not have realized can be useful to solve the problems facing them. At Southeast, students have opportunities to apply what they learn while still in school to the professional practice of their chosen fields through experiential learning, working on the job with persons who the students may in fact aspire to become. These practica and/or internships cause them to integrate all their knowledge on the job. The fact that a series of University Studies courses caused them to practice and hone their leadership skills before they ever set foot on the job will serve them very well when the time arrives!
- Demonstrate the ability to make informed, intelligent value decisions.
Valuing is the ability to make informed decisions after considering ethical, moral, aesthetic, and practical implications. It involves assessing the consequences of one's actions, assuming responsibility for them, and understanding and respecting the value perspective of others. The truth is that the University Studies program is not morally neutral, nor is the institution as a whole. Students have rights, certainly, but they also have responsibilities, obligations, and a code of conduct to adhere to. Southeast students must treat others with dignity and respect, just like they would want to be treated by others. Equally, we want students to understand why they believe and behave the way they do, and to learn tolerance and respect for beliefs and values different from their own.
- Demonstrate the ability to make informed, sensitive aesthetic responses.
A concern for beauty is a universal characteristic of human culture. Aesthetics, while usually associated with the fine arts, can be broadly defined to include all areas of human endeavor, for example, science, history, business and sport. Consider all the ways in which beauty manifests itself on earth: everything from a carnation to a cardinal to a coral reef. In my Spanish I classes, when we consider the dwellings in which Mexicans and Spaniards live and compare them to residences here in the United States, the discussion includes, if not centers on, aesthetics: how these peoples (including us) organize and decorate living spaces is largely a question of aesthetics. I am quick to point this out to students and to draw their attention to Objective 8.
- Demonstrate the ability to function responsibly in one's natural, social and political
Students must learn to interact responsibly with their natural, social and political environments in order to assure continued interrelationships among persons and things. This objective presupposes an educated, enlightened citizenry that accepts its responsibility to understand and participate in the political and social process.