Think tank takes aim at UNC-CH curriculum

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

A new report from a right-leaning think tank critiques UNC-Chapel Hill’s general education curriculum, calling it “incoherent,” a smorgasbord of thousands of classes with “very narrow — even trivial —topics.”

The study from the Raleigh-based John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy suggests shrinking the available courses at the university from over 4,000 to about 700 and zeroing in on a short list of essentials — history, statistics, logic, philosophy, western civilization, literature, arts, writing, science and political and economic systems. It recommends two instead of three foreign language courses and the elimination of university’s physical education and “experiential” learning course requirements.

The current system “exists as much for the good of the faculty and various campus political constituencies as it does for students,” the report said. “Much of its design and its failure to restrict course options in any meaningful way direct students away from the skills and knowledge they are mostly likely to need in the future.”

General education is the foundation of a college career, with courses across various disciplines usually taken before a student’s major. UNC-CH’s general education curriculum was revamped a few years ago and now prescribes 41 credit hours in areas such as English composition, foreign language, quantitative reasoning, physical sciences, social sciences, humanities and fine arts, global issues, the world before 1750 and other subjects. Within those categories students can choose the courses they want.

The Pope Center, a frequent critic of the university, cites some UNC-CH classes it characterizes as “an eclectic hodgepodge” that offer a “slice of life” but don’t add up to a well-rounded education. Among the examples: “Love, Sex and Marriage in Soviet Culture,” “Bollywood Cinema” and “History of Hip Hop Culture.”

Jane S. Shaw, president of the Pope Center, said she hoped the report would spark a conversation among the trustees. Students often miss fundamental philosophy and great historical movements while gravitating to courses that seem more entertaining, she said.

“The idea really is that a college-educated person should be able to be a leader,” Shaw said. “So a student should be expected to go through some rigor....There’s just this tendency in universities now to try to attract students and make it fun.”

UNC-CH Provost Jim Dean said he had read the report once and would review it more closely.

“Ultimately what constitutes a good, or an optimal education, is really based on values, and people have different values,” he said.

The report promotes a U.S.- and western-centric view about what’s important. The recommendation to reduce foreign language instruction is off base, he said.

“I found that idea really troubling,” said Dean, former dean of UNC-CH’s business school. “That seems so far out of step with what education should be to prepare people for the kind of work that they’re going to be doing.”

The Pope Report seems to de-emphasize global cultures, such as Asia, which is so important in today’s business world, Dean said.

“They certainly have every right to say ‘we think the curriculum should be this or that,’ he said. “Where I would take issue is that they think that they would label it as being better. I would just label it as being more consistent with their values.”

He said the university had invited the Pope Center staff to visit the campus.

“The more that people have a chance to really interact with our students and our faculty, the more confidence they’ll have in what we’re doing,” he said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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