Are we overthinking general education?


If you know me decently well, you know that I like to watch a lot of TV shows about food. I spend a good deal of time watching a range of Food Network shows of varying quality and value.

Thus, the news this morning about Anthony Bourdain hit me pretty hard. While it wasn’t on the Food Network, I watched many, many episodes of Parts Unknown. My mind, this morning, is wandering between images of him just sitting with a woman in a restaurant in Sicily chatting about the culture, history, economy and politics of Sicily to a more recent episode where he was throwing axes in Newfoundland. The show was endlessly fascinating and Bourdain was our guide to fascination.

There will be lots of mourning over the loss of Anthony Bourdain, but this morning, I am choosing to think of how we might celebrate his work through education.

Many colleges and universities are trying to figure out new ways to tackle general education requirements. My own employer, VCU, has been undergoing an effort “to re-imagine our general education curriculum.”  The proposed framework that my VCU colleagues came up with isn’t bad, but it still feels like picking courses out of individual boxes and checking boxes to complete a checklist. It feels like what happens when universities try to be innovative and break out of boxes, but turf wars ensue and departments dig in their heels. The result is an overwrought compromise that doesn’t serve anyone particularly well.

Here is something I wrote on Twitter back in 2015.

Imagine this learning experience: 1 faculty member with 20-25 students just reading and discussing the Longreads Weekly Top 5. They’d meet once a week, in a meeting room or a coffee shop or outside on a lawn or in the forest; it doesn’t matter. And they’d just talk about what they learned. And maybe they’d blog about it so they could expand their discussion beyond the designated class time and space and could get others outside the class to weigh in. That’s it; that’s the whole instructional design. No predetermined curriculum; very little by way of planning. Learning outcomes? How about curiosity, wonder, critical thinking? Those are your “learning outcomes.” I’d bet students would learn more by reading and deeply discussing those 5 articles each week than they would in most other tightly-designed, pre-packaged curriculum-driven course.

I would also love to involve students in a learning experience built around food shows like Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Seriously. Watch just the first few minutes of this episode. In just the first 3+ minutes, we get history (information about the Ottoman Empire), science (cooking and surface area), and math (computing surface area). In a show about kabobs.

What if general education was more like this? What if students read Longreads and watched episodes of Good Eats as part of an effort around interdisciplinary studies?

And then there’s Anthony Bourdain. To me, Parts Unknown was, at its heart, educational media.

I’m not from West Virginia like Craig Calcaterra (see below) is. But, I spent a lot of time in that state doing field research at the end of the 20th century. When I watched the episode of Parts Unknown that Calcaterra shares, I felt like Bourdain had really captured what I had come to know about the state and then some. Watch the episode and tell me that you didn’t learn a ton. The way Bourdain juxtaposes New York City and his fellow New Yorkers with the “existential enemy” in West Virginia is classic Bourdain.

Parts Unknown is an interdisciplinary curriculum. It is about culture, food, history, politics, economics, etc. It’s about people.

And isn’t that what general education is?

Replace the word “travel” with the word “learning” in the following quote from Anthony Bourdain.

Maybe we’re overthinking general education in higher education. Probably, in fact.

5 thoughts on “Are we overthinking general education?”

  1. Wonderful idea. Many retired people are doing what you suggest. Maybe what our country needs is a gap year, of service like the peace Corp, with some public service and travel within our country and then compensation is your first year of college being paid for by the government.

  2. A great piece Jon. Feel inspired by it. My reading just previous to this had been about competences and learning outcomes and competence criteria. I quote “Inadequate competence has to be supplemented and the missing competence will be acquired “.
    I felt depressed.
    Then I read “I seriously want to teach a course where all we do is read and discuss” and I think, “YES!” Indeed yes.
    Thank you for cheering up my day.

  3. My husband and I traveled constantly for 16 years, never in one place for more than 7-10 days. It was in connecttion with the P.G.A. Tour. At first, my head was turned by Exspensive and exclusive venues and celebrities. After a while, I began to priize conversation and “ship board exsperiences” with others at Golf Tounaments. That was the best way to get a sense of the locale and our country in general. That was the true broadening exsperience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.