General Education requirements under review

The overall structure of St. Olaf’s General Education (GE) curriculum has remained unchanged for almost 25 years. While some minor adjustments occurred in the early 2000s, a new task force has recently begun the difficult job of assessing the effectiveness of the current GE structure and recommending changes.

Most courses at St. Olaf satisfy one or more GE requirement. Currently, the entire college faculty establishes GE requirements. When a course is proposed, it is accredited for a certain GE classification by the St. Olaf Curriculum Committee based on the committee’s judgement of how well the course meets the guidelines for the relevant requirement.

The current GE curriculum is divided into three general categories: Foundation, Core and Integrative Studies. Each GE requirement is understood in terms of its “intended learning outcomes,” which describe “the knowledge, proficiencies, practices, and commitments that students should develop as a consequence of their St. Olaf experience,” according to the St. Olaf webpage.

Overall, through interdisciplinary GE requirements, St. Olaf aims to ensure that its students graduate with the intellectual tools they need to navigate a changing world.

“There are areas of learning that students need to know about,” Professor David Booth said. Booth teaches in the religion department and serves on the GE review task force. “And [those areas] might show up in any department.”

GE requirements and their interdisciplinary nature are not unique to St. Olaf. Carleton College also has GE requirements divided into areas such as “Curricular Exploration,” “Global Citizenship,” or “Argument and Inquiry Seminars.” Macalester College, on the other hand, utilizes a distribution system that requires that students complete a certain number of credits across the departments. St. Olaf had a similar system until the early 1990s when GE requirements were adopted.

“[At St. Olaf], a distribution system required … that students complete a major, but then they also had to take one history course, one philosophy course, one course in social sciences, and so on,” Booth explained. “In other words, they had to take a bunch of courses distributed across the departments.”

According to Booth, such a system struggled to give students “a well-rounded experience of what life requires.” Using the example of a poet, Booth explained that under a distribution system that required an introduction to biology, a poet would be forced to enroll in a class that merely introduced students to the biology major, “laying the groundwork for a bunch of upper-level bio courses, and that’s not what poets need to know about science.” Alternatively, Booth argued that under a GE system, a poet might take a course addressing questions such as, “How do scientists form questions? How do they gather evidence? Who funds science?” In sum, “a poet doesn’t need to know the specific foundation of biology nearly as much as they need to know how the whole enterprise of science works in a modern, democratic society,” Booth said.

After several years of informal discussion among the faculty concerning the modern applicability of St. Olaf’s GE system, the Curriculum Committee, which is comprised of faculty elected to the committee by their peers, invited the entire St. Olaf faculty to vote for and adopt a resolution creating a task force to review current GE requirements and structure. The task force has five members who were elected to serve on the task force and represent the five different branches of the faculty – natural science, social science, humanities, fine arts and interdisciplinary studies. Five other members were appointed by deans of the college “to fill in gaps in that group and ensure that a diversity of the faculty were represented,” Booth said. Finally, two current students also serve in the task force.

Its mission, Booth explained, is to quickly produce “a report that will evaluate the effectiveness of the current curriculum in meeting important goals, and make a recommendation about whether or not to launch into a full-blown process of reimagining and reinventing.”

The scope of the changes to the college’s curriculum is difficult to judge this early in the process, but Booth is confident that at least some aspects will be adjusted, given the extent of change in the world in general and in the composition of the student and faculty bodies in particular.

“The things we know about have changed. Our understanding of our disciplines have changed,” Booth explained. Perhaps alluding to the HWC requirement in particular, Booth elaborated that “our sense of the boundaries between ‘Western civilization’ and the rest of the world has changed.”

Furthermore, given that almost all of the faculty has turned over since the 1990s, current St. Olaf professors did not have an opportunity to shape the GE requirements applied to their courses.

“The vast majority of the faculty, including the youngest, brightest, most energetic and capable junior faculty didn’t get their say about [GE structure], and took it as a preexisting thing,” Booth said. “All the arguments that made it seem reasonable and exciting got lost in the sands of time; it just seems like a bunch of requirements.”

While it may seem that the task force wields immense power to quickly shape the future of St. Olaf’s curriculum, Booth envisions a different picture.

“In order for this to be successful, my hunch is that no task force will make a proposal that gets adopted,” he explained. “Instead, a task force will make a proposal that will become the target of lots of rich and earnest arguing and criticism, and the criticism will come from good places … and after months of deliberation, and maybe far removed from the initial recommendation of the task force, finally there’ll be a proposal that can get basic support from the faculty.”

The future of St. Olaf’s GE system might be unclear, but its underlying motives and philosophy remain the same, according to Booth.

“We want to do the best we can to figure out what students need to learn about, what skills they need, what attitudes and habits of mind they need in order to be good and do well in a world that desperately needs them to be good and do well,” Booth said. “GE [was conceived by] faculty who are motivated by loving care of students who will live in a world that is slightly terrifying.”