As most any study of general education will tell you, students do not find general education engaging. As this study from the Harvard General Education Review Committee found, “Students report not taking their Gen Ed courses as seriously as other courses.” Yet, “Students wish more Gen Ed courses were worth taking seriously.”
I think the problem is that most general education in American higher education is irrelevant to the most important things in which we will engage throughout our life.
Consider marriage and family. For example, the vast majority of college-going Americans believe having an excellent marriage and family life one of the primary elements of the good life (indeed it is true around the world).1 Furthermore, marriage is something that over 75% of Americans will one day try. If they succeed in having a good marriage, it will count as one of the greatest accomplishments. It certainly remains central to many people’s happiness.
If they fail, however, it will count as one of their major failures in life. As one student of mine wrote about her darkest moral moment in life, “[it] was about five years ago. My marriage was falling apart and I was approaching my 40th birthday.” Indeed, most people would gladly pay the cost of a three-hour college course to save their future marriage or enhance their family life.
Despite the importance of marriage, a course on marriage and family is not a course that is required in most general education. Granted, one could argue that the general education found through literature, psychology, education, sociology or perhaps even theology might equip one to think about and practice excellence in marriage, but I think those who make that argument are wrong.
The reason they are wrong is that these liberal arts teach capacities within certain disciplines or academic practices. Yet, we know by experience and academic study that cultivating a capacity while engaged in one practice (e.g., seeking to be an excellent communicator as a biologist) does not mean one will transfer that skill easily and quickly to another practice such as marriage. Indeed, my wife will occasionally remind me that she does not want me to talk to her like I do my students or colleagues. My kids also throw out this reminder as well when I start a sentence with “studies say” and try to offer them wisdom.
Not surprisingly, the foremost expert on the development of excellence noted, “…there is no such thing as developing a general skill…. You don’t train to become an athlete; you train to become a gymnast or a sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer or a basketball player. You don’t train to become a doctor; you train to become a diagnostician or a pathologist or a neurosurgeon.”2 In other words, excellence in a practice is achieved not by cobbling together a few capacities learned from different liberal arts classes but by sustained reflection and engagement in a specific practice (which may be enhanced by reading more widely in literature, psychology, sociology, theology, etc.).
The lack of a required course on romantic friendships, marriage, and family is likely one of the reasons that contemporary students’ knowledge about what contributes to a successful marriage and family is so pathetic. The students I teach often know little to nothing about the social science related to healthy marriages. If a recent Gallup poll is correct, neither do an increasing number of church-going Christians. A 2020 poll found that for the first time that less than half (45%) of weekly church attenders believe it is very important that couples with children be legally married.
I find this belief astounding, especially since social science research (and not simply the Bible or the Christian tradition) clearly indicates that children flourish better amid two married parents. Yet, I find an odd paradox with my students. Most of my young students have no idea about the social science evidence related to how badly divorce wounds children.
Still, those from broken families know it. When I ask students to write about a major moral memory in their lives, they often refer to divorce. It is never positive. Here are just a few examples:
- The divorce of my parents is a powerful memory that profoundly affected my sense of morality. On the one hand, my mother continued to emphasize the importance of family and unconditional love for children. On the other, my father was absent and completely withdrew from us. Therefore, I encountered an inner turmoil concerning what is considered moral.
- When I was a freshman in high school, my parents separated and divorced after a 22-year marriage. I found myself becoming rapidly involved with after school programs and organizations, escaping the “home” life.
- The dark side of my early moral development came with my parents’ divorce. The situation left my mother feeling justifiably bitter. But she passed this bitterness on to my sister and I. For years, I did not talk to my father.
- After my parents divorced, I went through a time of rebellion and withdrew from my childhood church. Even though I was raised in a Christian environment, I basically attempted to separate myself from the values of my parents.
One does not need student interviews to find this information though. I was once meeting with a man in our Sunday School class who was having an affair and contemplating divorce. He mentioned that he actually looked up the influence of divorce on children on the internet and saw it would hurt them (he ended up getting divorced anyway).
Unfortunately, most colleges and universities do not even provide knowledge and wisdom about marriage in their general education. I find this situation so heart-breaking, since in my own experience I found books to be very helpful in improving my knowledge about what makes an excellent marriage. Indeed, I can honestly say that my wife and I have never had a fight about the big three: money, sex, and in-laws (despite external pressures on the first two created by health crises in our lives). Of course, we’ve had other fights about other things, but we also knew how to address them due to our preparation for the practice that we received from our parents, church, and continual study. In fact, in the past few years, we have started the habit of reading weekly from different books about marriage (which produces great discussions).
Consequently, I think any Christian college or university that fails to require a course on marriage, family, and singleness in their general education is failing their students (and that would include my own university). Navigating at least two of those three things is an essential liberal art in life for everyone. In particular, marriage as a liberal art would set forth what I find my students do not have—Christian visions for marital, family, and single life.
First, a general education, marriage, family, and singleness course should expose students to different theological and philosophical conceptions of marriage (e.g. sacramental, covenantal, social contract, place for expressive individualism, etc.). It would also acquaint students with the social science results that occur when following different types of family patterns and choices and the literature about what leads to health marriages and family relationships (including children’s well-being).3 Furthermore, it would help them recognize the influence that Western individualism and exporting liberal democratic ideology into one’s family life may have upon one’s understanding of family life and decisions. If taught with passion and good pedagogy, it might actually lead students to look forward to part of their general education.
- Perry L. Glanzer, Jonathan P. Hill, & Jessica A. Robinson, “Emerging Adults’ Conceptions of Purpose and the Good Life: A Classification and Comparison,” Youth & Society 50, 6 (2018): 715–733; Romin W. Tafarodi, Greg Bonn, Hanyu Liang, Jiro Takai, Satoshi Moriizumi, Vivek Belhekar, and Amruta Padhye. “What Makes for a Good Life? A Four-Nation Study.” Journal of Happiness Studies 13, no. 5 (2011): 783–800.
- Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), 60.
- A good place to start would be the resources provided by the Institute for Family Studies, https://ifstudies.org/