“[Curriculum] has been one of those places where we have told ourselves who we are.”1
One of the odd things about most forms of general education is how they fail to prepare students for life-long quests related to stewardship. What do I mean? Consider the fact that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Denver recently held Adulting 101 workshops that helped students with basic skills about stewarding one’s financial resources, body, and time.2 Interestingly, the University of Denver website even touted at that time, “Learn the life skills you’re not learning in class.”3 Since we will steward our bodies, finances, time, the environment, and more our whole life, this begs the question: Why are students not learning about being excellent stewards in their general education classes?
The major reason is that general education focuses upon serving disciplines and faculty instead of serving students. The current system of majors serves the discipline or profession associated with a particular major, but general education should focus on whom the university is ultimately meant to serve.4 As John Dewey noted, changing the focus from the teacher and the curriculum to the student involves a revolutionary curricular transformation.5
Although a student-centric approach may seem to foster a preoccupation with a person’s self, if done correctly, it is the heart of good teaching. It starts with students’ interests and then moves outward to the moral obligations and challenges they encounter in the wider world in three ways that pertain to their identity as stewards (one of what I call “the Great Identities”).
First, by focusing not just on a singular human identity but also upon what it means to be excellent in that identity, the academic conversation centers on excellence instead of politics. Being an excellent steward is not simply a concern about power, although that is a component. Instead, consideration focuses on some of the following: the purpose of stewardship; the rules and practices of stewardship; the virtues associated with stewardship—love, care, forgiveness, and generosity; how one practices stewardship; and more. Students want and need to have moral conversations about what it means to be good or excellent in areas of their identity with which they will be wrestling for the rest of their lives.
Moreover, unlike an English composition class focused on critiquing Fox News, a real course at an unnamed university, identity conversations are timeless and undertaken by all humans globally. Everywhere in the world, humans ask about what it means to be a good steward of human creations, one’s body, the environment, finances, one’s race, and more. Moreover, the pursuit of excellent stewardship in these areas remains pertinent to students throughout their lives and not just during a particular phase.
Second, a focus on identity excellence, such as being an excellent steward, keeps general education from being self-centered in another way. Certainly, these courses capture the students’ attention because they are relevant, but they also require students to situate themselves within a historical context—a vitally important skill. Knowing what it means to be excellent in any identity is impossible without first encountering the past conversations about what it means to be excellent—the so-called moral tradition surrounding the identity. Therefore, a general education focused on identity excellence would help students understand commonalities and differences throughout history regarding excellence in various identities.
By nature, an identity focus connects students with broader community identities along with the larger stories and moral traditions associated with those identities, something at which higher education is currently abysmal.6 Throughout history, humans have fostered robust conversations among different philosophical and religious traditions regarding what it means to be a good steward of your body, your race and ethnicity, cultural creations, finances, the environment and more. Schooling needs to expose students to these intellectual conversations. In this way, a Great Identities course of study is student-centered without being self-centered.
Third and finally, many current general education courses focus on providing information. Take, for instance, one institution’s required course on learning basic scientific thinking (a capacity). Although such a course is valuable, its purveyors assume students’ interest in this knowledge. In contrast, education in the Great Identities, which maintains that discussing information in the context of the identity and the moral ideals for which that information is relevant, proves much more valuable and engaging. For example, rather than merely discussing information about science, the conversation focuses on what it means to be a good caretaker of nature, which involves knowing science but also the moral traditions of earthly caretaking.
Teaching about the Great Identities is basically introducing students to moral conversations about identity excellence. Moreover, for any of the ethical objectives in general education to be integrated into students’ lives, students must acquire a moral identity associated with a particular identity. As Irene Clark observes, “Involvement in academic genres may require students to assume a particular identity when they write or participate in class, but what current brain study suggests is that this involvement is a type of ‘performance’ that does not necessarily result in profound identity change.”7
Thus, we need to help students learn how to apply this knowledge outside of the classroom identity of “student.” She goes on to provide helpful advice about why Identity Excellence is important:
But the act of performing itself can also result in an increased consciousness of the performance, so that when students leave our classrooms, when they greet their friends, participate in a sport, tweet, send Instagrams, or attend a family barbecue, they will be able to shift identities, sometimes easily, sometimes with difficulty. But we can help students become aware that they are doing so, enabling them to choose who they wish to be according to situation and context.8
Similarly, when students are taught to think about the different moral traditions concerning what it means to be an excellent steward of time, money, the environment, their race, and their body, they can then make more informed and critical moral choices about their performance in these identities. They also learn how to prioritize identities when choosing between them. They learn Identity Excellence.
(This blog post was adopted from my new book, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education.)
- Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum, A History of the American Undergraduate Course of Study since 1636 (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1977), 1.
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “Adulting 101,” UNC.edu. (Accessed April 10, 2020). https://library.unc.edu/house/workshops/adulting-101/
- University of Denver, “Adulting 101,” DU.edu. (Accessed April 10, 2020). https://www.du.edu/health-and-counseling-center/healthpromotion/mental_health/adulting101.html
- Hanstedt does propose addressing a similar possible theme in general education. Yet, Hanstedt’s answer to addressing this theme is for students to choose from a list of distribution requirements across a variety of disciplines (pp. 29-31). The inclusion of this category is not driven by a moral vision. Paul Hanstedt, General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (San Francisco John Wiley & Sons, 2012).
- John Dewey, The School and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1899), 51.
- Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, & Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- Irene Clark, “Genre, Identity, and the Brain: Insights from Neuropsychology,” Journal of General Education 65, no 1 (2016): 1-19.
- Clark, “Genre, Identity, and the Brain,” 13-14.