General Education in the modern age

One important outcome of modernity is the increasing differentiation of knowledge along functional lines. Nowhere is this more visible, and destabilizing in its effects, than in the organization of higher education. We see this primarily in the rise of new narrow specialties in every field or discipline. But we see it, too, in the growing intolerance for areas of knowledge and types of skills that have no immediate relevance to one’s chosen profession.

Current discussions on the General Education (GE) program at the University of the Philippines reflect this disturbing trend. On one side, there are those who, in staunch defense of the university’s nationalist and liberal traditions, wish to preserve the existing number of units for GE, together with most of the required GE courses that have helped mold the consciousness of successive generations of UP graduates. On the other side, there are those who seek to rationalize the curriculum by cutting down the number of GE courses, and allotting more time to core courses, with a view to producing world-class professionals.

These are not intrinsically contradictory goals. What pits one against the other is the limited number of units that a student may be required to take to complete a bachelor’s degree. In general, the trend in higher education is toward reducing the amount of time needed for a first degree, in order to speed up the transition to gainful employment or to further graduate work. This is why the number of units to be allotted to GE courses has become the major battleground in the ongoing curricular debate.

When I entered UP as a student in the early 1960s, the GE program was the centerpiece of a UP education. It took up the first two years of any university baccalaureate program. The current proposal is to shorten the GE program so it can be completed in less than a year. The reason given is that many of the subjects in the GE curriculum will now be taught in senior high school under the new K-to-12 program.

I can’t see why that is a justification. It is not difficult to design new GE courses that are not a repetition of the senior high school curriculum. Most of the thematic courses that found their way into the UP Revitalized GE Program, a major revamp of the program undertaken during the presidency of Francisco Nemenzo Jr., were of this nature. They were interdisciplinary, innovative and, above all, interesting.

It seems to me that what is really at issue here is the wisdom of devoting half of the time one needs for an undergraduate degree to general courses, particularly in the humanities and the liberal arts. The specialists want to pare down the program to the barest minimum, seeing it as basically a waste of time, and use the freed units to beef up the core majors’ programs.

This institutional rationalization is happening everywhere. In some countries, the old liberal arts colleges have either shrunk or completely vanished under its sway. Entire departments have been dismantled in many of the big universities abroad, their offices and faculty items taken over by new programs.

The functional specialization of learning displaces value orientations that have been entrenched by previous academic traditions. As a result, literature and the arts, nationalism and civic duty, philosophy and moral education, etc.—along with classical notions of what constitutes a learned human being—gradually lose their foothold in the modern university curriculum. Their place—equivalent to the number of units allotted to subjects outside the core curriculum of every college—has shrunk over time.

Mercifully, GE has not been completely excised from the curriculum of Philippine universities. It is, however, being neutered. It is uncertain how long the Filipino university can resist the tide of pragmatic specialization and the globalization of knowledge. One thing is sure, though: What happens to university education at UP will basically set the tone for all other institutions of higher learning in the country.

This threat is not new. When Dodong Nemenzo became president of UP in 1999, his top priority was the reinvention of the GE program. He sensed that the biggest threat to it was the growing instrumental rationalization to which the whole university organization was being subjected by the forces of modern science and technology. Rather than resist modernity, Nemenzo rode on its sensibility, and sought to inject a new vitality to the GE curriculum. Amid controversy, he opened up the old curriculum, and challenged the departments to design new GE subjects.

The result of Nemenzo’s radical outlook was an astonishing amalgamation of thematic courses that transcended national boundaries: gender and sexuality, self-awareness, identity politics, multiculturalism, ethics, climate change, religious fundamentalism, sustainable development, just to name a few. Some professors saw these courses as a capitulation to globalization and postmodernism, and fiercely fought for the retention of the protected status of courses that had served as the bread and butter of a few departments.

What they could not see was that most of the new courses were in fact a reinsertion into the modern curriculum of the familiar values of nationalism, social justice, public service, creativity and imagination. Their benign neglect in professional education was passing unnoticed and Nemenzo sought to rescue them. He was convinced that the so-called “Tatak UP” that every graduate of the university is supposed to carry is not a set of sacrosanct courses but a quality of mind.

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