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January 10, 2002 Three paths to general education in Arts and Science



by Barbara Black

Provost Jack Lightstone has been waiting for nearly 26 years to see a general education requirement at Concordia, and it’s finally going to happen.

The push for a general education requirement arises from a sense that after years of emphasis on specialized knowledge and professional training, students need more breadth and depth in their education — courses that address their ability to read, write, speak, reason, compute and listen effectively.

At present, the only regulation, a student must take 24 credits outside their major subject, but there is nothing to force a student in science, say, to take a course in the humanities, or vice versa.

Arts and Science will give its new students entering in Fall 2002 a choice of three ways to satisfy the general education requirement. Students in a major program of study will require 12 general education credits, while students registered in an honours, specialization, major/minor or double major will require six general education credits.

The first option is to take all four courses of an interdisciplinary core curriculum called The Great Books and the Western Tradition.

This program reflects the experience of Concordia’s Liberal Arts College, which, to quote the calendar, focuses on “enduring works fundamental to the development of intellectual curiosity, human freedom and an informed citizenry.” Other cores are likely to be developed, notably one on non-Western civilization that would complement the Great Books core.

The second option is to take a cluster of five to seven courses connected by a common theme. There are two at present in the general education roster: Discovering Science, and Globalization. An ethics cluster is in the works, and there will be others.

The third option is to take four courses from a list of 34 courses, at least one from each of three disciplinary sectors: science, social science, and humanities. Only courses from the student’s major department are excluded.

“General education is a major innovation for the Faculty of Arts and Science,” said Professor Bill Byers, principal of Lonergan College, who has been at the leading edge of this project. “When the program is fully up and running, it will involve up to 240 sections a year.

“The essential change here is from a supermarket approach, where a students is free to take anything at all outside his or her major, to this approach, where the Faculty is helping the student structure some of their elective credits,” Byers said. “Remember that a student in a 42-credit major has 48 elective credits.”

Byers added, “I believe that it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we think about undergraduate education. It may well become something that we use to attract potential students to the university [because] we are now thinking about students’ total educational experience, and not just about their field of specialization.

“Most Canadian universities provide little guidance for students — if you can get in, you can take. The student ends up with a hodgepodge of courses that may not add up to a coherent experience.”

Professor Byers gives “a great deal of credit” to Dean Martin Singer for the work he put into this massive and ongoing project.

Besides Byers, who is the coordinator, the members of the general education committee are Robert Kilgour (Exercise Science), William Knitter (Education), Joanne Locke (ex officio, Vice-Dean Curriculum), James Pfaus, (Psychology), Harvey Shulman (Liberal Arts College), Martin Singer (ex officio, Dean), Patricia Thornton (Geography) and Reeta Tremblay (Political Science).

Faculties have their own approaches

The Faculty of Fine Arts used to require undergraduate students to take 18 credits (six courses) outside the Faculty; then it went down to 12. According to a new policy, that has been changed to six credits (or two courses) in another Faculty, but they must also take six credits outside their own area of fine arts. That is, a student in a performing arts program, such as music, theatre or contemporary dance, could take two courses in the interpretive arts, such as film studies or art history, and vice versa.

Andrea Fairchild, associate dean of academic affairs in Fine Arts, said that the Faculty will also try to develop interest-based courses in such disciplines as art history and film studies that will meet the criteria of the Faculty of Arts and Science.

In the John Molson School of Business, Associate Dean George Kanaan said, students are required to complete 12 credits of non-business electives whereas the general education requirement consists of six credits. “Our students can choose any courses offered in the other Faculties to complete the 12-credit requirement. In the future, we will direct our students to take those courses that have been identified as general education courses, thereby restricting the students’ choice from among the available non-business courses.”

Terrill Fancott, associate dean, special projects, in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, says that the concept of a general education has always been an essential part of the engineering curriculum.

“The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB), which accredits all Engineering programs in Canada, defines this as a requirement for accreditation in the following words: ‘The curriculum must include studies in engineering economics and on the impact of technology on society, and subject matter which deals with central issues, methodologies and thought processes of the humanities and social sciences.’

“The CEAB also requires communication skills, both orally and in writing,” Professor Fancott continued. “At Concordia, these requirements are implemented in the core curricula of the Faculty and its programs. All students are required to take courses on the impact of technology on society, communication, economics, law and an elective chosen from a broad range of subjects in the humanities and social sciences. The Faculty is continuing to develop this area, with planned courses in health and safety, as well as sustainable development.”