Transforming General Education to Engage
Transforming General Education to Engage
“And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who is a student of the kingdom of the heavens is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and old.’” (Mt 13:52)
Jesus told parables using normal daily activities—like farming, fishing, baking bread, plants growing, merchants buying and selling—but transformed the mundane into profound statements about the Kingdom of God. Novelty and innovation pervade our lives and can become our aspiration. There are few things in collegiate life as mundane and undesirable as general education—for students and often for faculty. Another round of familiar topics with a smidgeon more depth than in high school is merely to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. Specialization for professional development is much more enticing. My love for general education and teaching freshmen stands outside the norm.
Transforming general education is daunting. Is taking a distribution of various subjects divided by academic discipline what it means to be generally educated? Is breadth of knowledge in itself sufficient reason for the time, effort and cost? Years of conversations with students have revealed a desire not particularly for breadth of knowledge nor even the depth of knowledge that comes in a major. Hopes and aspirations for a changed life and a changed world beat in the hearts of many students. They want education to help them transform the mundane as they engage their lives, their communities, their world. This requires intellectual growth, appropriate disposition and the opportunity to learn by serving.
The general education reform process begun in 2019 returned to the basic question of what the program was meant to achieve. This is more than a list of discrete learning outcomes and tinkering with curricular structures. General education is the heart of liberal arts education. The root meaning of “liberal” is “free.” It originally meant an education befitting a free person, but also came to mean an education that sets people free. Jesus’ teaching sought to free his audience from the way they had come to accept the world and to engage, transform and connect to that same world with new perspectives to breathe a new spirit into the mundane. This is the ongoing challenge for a Christian liberal arts general education. It is the challenge to engage all of life by connecting various areas of study with an interconnected world. The intellectual development in general education should help one gain more information about and see the connections between race, poverty, health, aging, education, environment, family, religion, immigration, technology and everything else we encounter.
General education should not only develop knowledge or cognitive skills, but also foster a kingdom disposition. The parables Jesus told in Matthew 13 uncover three characteristics that challenged a successful and triumphalistic approach to engaging the world. First, the growth of God’s Kingdom—God’s reign and way of doing things—would start very small and insignificantly, like a mustard seed or yeast in a vast amount of flour. Both would surely grow, but he emphasized the small beginning. Second, he taught that it would be very costly, involving the need to give up everything. Third, recognizing that judgment is not ours allows us to avoid partisanship and working for dominance or destruction of real or imagined opposition. These dispositions—small and insignificant beginnings, costly choices, letting go of the desire to condemn others—are crucial for transforming our engagement in life.
Developing faithful responses take practice and guidance. Rather than bemoaning the question, “what does this academic subject have to do with my life?” a successful general education program recognizes that students’ lives are the starting place to engage many significant issues. Action research, service-learning, research with peers and faculty, and practicums are just a sample of ways that students and faculty can partner as co-learners in transformative engagement. A desire to engage life in Central California more meaningfully led me to change majors and transfer to Fresno Pacific where I could work, serve and learn with fellow students and faculty.
My gratitude for the old and the new deepens as I reflect on 41 years as part of FPU (as a student and employee) and the number of former and current students and colleagues who embody faithful, transformative engagement in this city, the Valley and throughout the world. Transforming general education into engaged learning draws upon both old and new to enhance and foster this faithful living.