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Global Competencies

Global Competencies

It was both interesting and embarrassing a couple of weeks ago to learn that assessments of learning outcomes in our Global Understanding general education category were the lowest of any segment examined. I was delighted, as I arrived 12 years ago, that the faculty general education committee had made a commitment to a global category – essential, it seems to me, in any contemporary general education program – but I had already, since then, grown concerned about its implementation. The assessment results confirm the need for new and more focused attention.

The assessment group has been doing portfolio reviews of several gen. ed. categories, with a goal of ultimately having student outcomes in each category 95% either good or excellent, and 50% excellent outright. Currently only two categories are virtually there already: fine arts and synthesis. All the others thus far evaluated – literature, social sciences and so on – have a ways to go. Nothing wrong with this: this was a first cut, one expected problems to be identified, and no category – not even Global Understanding – was really abysmal.

But why Global Understanding at the bottom of the heap? Two factors, in all probability. First, students undoubtedly bring more from high school to groupings like literature than to the basic mental habits and skills associated with global issues. Other than a smattering of foreign language training and a sophomore world history course (of varying degrees of adequacy), what do the schools systematically offer that would prepare in this domain?

The other factor, however, involves faculty themselves, and this is what we clearly need to work on next. When we set up the category, all sorts of units had courses to contribute – courses that genuinely dealt with societies other than the United States. The enthusiasm was genuine, and of course the units also had in mind protecting as much enrollment as possible. But the result was almost certainly inadequately monitored by our first general education committees. A batch of courses were admitted with factual targets and, even more important, analytical goals that were simply too narrow to pass in terms of what the category in principle aimed at. Now that we’ve honed our definition of outcomes, the problem emerges even more clearly.

None of this is irremediable, but we’re clearly on notice to do better, and the challenge will begin with the faculty involved. It may be that, painful as the process is, a few courses should be dropped from what is now an overfull roster; it may simply be too much of a stretch for some perfectly valid but rather specialized courses to meet goals like developing understanding of global patterns and processes or dealing with interconnectedness and diversity in a global society. Among other things, goals of this sort, which I find fully valid, challenge disciplines like my own – history — to come up with courses that make direct connections with certain kinds of current issues – a perfectly feasible linkage, but one which requires going beyond some standard disciplinary templates. I hope we can expect some creative collective discussion and some commitments to restructuring in response to a clear new challenge.