Why does James Madison University place so much emphasis on its General Education Program?
Linda Cabe Halpern, JMU Vice Provost for University Programs
First of all — the phrase itself is often misunderstood by those who are not part of the higher education community. “General education” is the name given to program requirements for all students, beyond the major or degree. It is not necessarily general, in the most common sense of the word, but it is intended to be both broad and broadening. General education programs often have names that celebrate institutional identity or values. The JMU program is entitled “The Human Community,” because we believe it is the component of a Madison education that unites our students into an academic community and also demonstrates the interrelatedness of humans across time and place. The program emphasizes breadth of study, exploration of multiple ways of thinking and knowing across a variety of content areas, and the ability to integrate information and ideas from a variety of sources and perspectives.
Higher education in the U.S. has embraced the ideal of a broad liberal arts foundation for all students since at least the nineteenth century. This emphasis on breadth and the idea that a liberal arts education is a necessary component of a college degree are accepted aspects of higher education in the U.S., but are not universally shared in the global community. A core belief, not just at JMU but throughout U.S. higher education, is the conviction that all students grow as humans and are more able to think clearly and evaluate evidence and ideas because of participating in an education structured to celebrate learning for its own sake.
Liberal education, or liberal arts education, comes from a Latin root meaning “free.” Historically, it was the education for free people, who were expected to be active in public life in some way. Here at James Madison University, we also recall President Madison’s conviction that higher education was the best defense of liberty—not because it taught particular subjects or job skills, but because its emphasis on reason and evidence was the best remedy for cant and unconsidered reactions of all sorts. Following this tradition, we believe in general and liberal education as a core component in preparing students for participatory democracy. This is the reason the JMU seal includes the phrase, “knowledge is liberty.”
Every accredited college and university in the U.S. has a general education program of some sort. Almost all of them include content related to the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, along with courses that address written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, and critical thinking and reasoning skills. JMU’s program includes these core attributes.
General education at James Madison University is a 41-credit program, divided into five “Clusters,” or areas of study, completed by all undergraduates. While students have choices in most program areas, those choices are intentionally limited in order to provide coherence and consistency in our approach to the core student learning outcomes addressed in a particular area.
Our program is designed to address a number of interconnected goals—development of a broad, integrative, and liberating education; foundational preparation for a major; and the opportunity to develop and practice the habits of sound reasoning and productive communication that form the basis for full engagement in life and work.
A recent report details the priority business leaders place on core areas of learning from ethical reasoning to communication and quantitative literacy. The vast majority of respondents rated these kinds of learning equal to or more important than skills in a major or applied area. One industry leader described her company’s search for “T-shaped employees,” with depth of knowledge in a particular field of study as well as breadth of preparation. The General Education Program at JMU intentionally lays a foundation for the rest of students’ education and for life and work after college by emphasizing writing, oral communication, quantitative literacy, critical thinking and problem-solving, content knowledge across an array of disciplines, and the opportunity to work within the standards of practice in a variety of fields.
While most students come to JMU with some idea about their major, those ideas are often shaped and refined by their experience in their General Education classes. Some add a second major or minor, or discover a field to pursue in graduate study. I recently spent some time with an articulate and engaged student who described what a wonderful experience she had in a freshman critical thinking class taught in the Philosophy Department. Because of that experience, she added a Philosophy minor to her Marketing major, and explained how helpful the training in thought processes and arguments that she received in her minor was to her in preparing marketing ideas for the classes in her major.
We have given careful thought to articulation between the General Education Program and academic majors here at JMU, in areas as various as information-seeking skills, writing, and quantitative reasoning. Faculty teaching in the General Education Program work hard to understand how best to prepare JMU students for many disciplines and majors. However, it would be a mistake to focus solely on the practical benefits of preparation for a major or a career. These are essential goals for students, families, and society—and for all of us in higher education. However, we share the firm belief that a broad liberal arts education is also a necessary part of the preparation for a wider range of life activities and truly prepares students to be “educated and enlightened citizens who lead productive and meaningful lives.”