Along with their general education courses, San Diego State undergraduates and all others of the Cal State University must take coursework in an area called “American Institutions.” The focus areas of this requirement, mandated by Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations, are the U.S. Constitution, American ideals, the nature of American democracy, and the functioning of its national, state, and local governments. The requirement is now facing possible revision.
In 2017, the state university academic senate appointed a task force to examine the university’s general education program. On February 8 this year, the group published the “General Education Task Force Report: Recommendations for GE Review and Reform.” One measure the report recommends is to reduce general education units from 48 to 42. Part of that reduction would come from cutting in half the number of units required for satisfying the American Institutions requirement.
To cover 100 years of U.S. history is another demand of the American Institutions mandate, and most of the history departments of the state university have been accomplishing the task with two 3-unit-courses for a total of 6 units. At San Diego State, operating out of the College of Arts and Letters, both the history and political science departments offer the courses that satisfy American Institutions.
“For 50 years,” says Andrew Wiese, current history department chair, “it has been understood that two classes are necessary to cover the 100 years of American history. Only one 3-unit class is not enough to cover that much material, and nobody has ever doubted that.”
Wiese, whose academic specialties are urban and recent American history, has taught at San Diego State for 22 years. A second task force proposal, he says, is to remove the American Institutions requirement from the School of Arts and Letters and make it part of general education. This would allow other approaches, which are not as appropriate to the particular task of conveying American Institutions. According to Wiese, the program now in place “is well designed, integrated across campuses, and demonstrably successful.”
Wiese explains, “There are 400,000 students in the California State University,” he says, “thousands more students in the community colleges feed the state universities, and K through 12 education prepares all those who will pursue higher education in the state and even beyond its borders.”
At San Diego Mesa College, professor John Crocitti says that “the first exposure of immigrants, and the children of immigrants, to American ideals and the cultural factors that contributed to them is very often in our community college classrooms.”
Crocitti teaches history at Mesa and is chairman its School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Mesa College is the largest transfer feeder to the Cal State universities,” Crocitti says. “So we have to be in lock step with them.” That means that the 100 years of the American history requirement would be allowed only one 3-credit class of instruction at Mesa, too. “Sixteen weeks is not nearly enough time,” he says.
Crocitti gives an example of the importance of the study of history. “I know many people don’t like unions. But prior to the passage in 1935 of the Wagner Act establishing the rights of employees to bargain collectively, there were no safety provisions protecting workers on the job. And unions have given workers options to negotiate their interests other than fighting in the streets, as happened early in the last century in San Diego as well as the rest of the country.”
For Andrew Wiese, the “worry is more that of a citizen than a professor of history. Whether viewed from the right or left on the political spectrum, de-emphasizing education into democracy would be arriving at a crucial time in the nation’s history.”
In an attempt to explain its motivations for revising general education, the task force cited “mounting concerns about the erosion of confidence in the value of higher education, higher costs of education borne increasingly by students, attenuated times to degree completion, and low persistence rates…. A unifying motive for such reform has been a conclusion that GE programs have stagnated while the diversity of students, education, workplace skills and needs, and technology have, by sharp contrast, changed dramatically.”
Wiese suspects that the cost of the state university to the public and graduation rates have been the major thorns in the side for the task force, despite increases of 40 percent in graduation already by 2014 at SDSU. “Last year we were far ahead of the expectations the chancellor’s office had for us. We were at 49 percent of students graduating. We’ve done that with improved advising and counseling. And we’ve done it with robust general education and American Institutions programs in place. So neither of those requirements have been roadblocks to graduation,” he argues. “That’s a red herring.”
It doesn’t seem that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students “need more room” to graduate either, says Wiese. “And all of our majors actually need civic education. Think Facebook. And for ‘bench scientists’ to move to management, and for keyboarders to a higher level, they need critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and communication skills, all of which general education teaches. Those are some of the most important skills that major employers look for.”
But this is all couched in “the eternal argument over getting jobs versus having choices to explore subjects and grow as a person. I reject the false choice between STEM and general education. The university does both well.”
Sometimes Wiese thinks that after earlier “big” changes were made to improve student progress, there is a sense that education now needs to be made easier. “So cut back requirements. But what would you end up with?
“Among many kinds of students, we train young Marines at SDSU, too,” says Wiese, who recalls a breakfast meeting he had with Marine Corps Brigadier General William Jurney, former commander at San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruiting Depot. “We talked about improving education. Never once did the general mention shortening target practice or marching drills or doing physical exercise. They do a great job of producing Marines at MCRD. They maintain rigor. In higher education, too, rigor matters.”
As one might expect, there has been faculty push-back at SDSU and several other university campuses to the task force recommendations on general education. On March 11, history professor Walter Penrose, Wiese’s colleague, sent to the San Diego State academic senate executive committee a resolution, already adopted by the Council of Chairs and Directors of the College of Arts and Letters, to discuss and reject the task force report. In the accompanying email, Penrose wrote, “The report was generated without representation from faculty in either the humanities or the social sciences. When two history professors from [Cal State Fullerton] went to the Chancellor’s Office in Long Beach to attend the last meeting of the GE Task Force, they were denied entrance to what should have been a public meeting. It is my understanding that the minutes of the meeting have not been made public.”
To the cuts to the American Institutions requirement, Penrose added that a new area of general education called “category E that many faculty have worked hard to produce [over 18 months at the request of the state university administration] has been dropped, the humanities and social science requirements will now be only three units each, and upper-division GE has been cut to six units.”
As reasons to reject the task force report, the resolution cites, among other points, the report’s failing to recommend “more than vocational training,” “inadequate consultation with faculty in several disciplines whose expertise would have been relevant to its deliberations and whose programs are significantly impacted by the [task force] recommendations” and increasing “considerable concern that faculty authority on curricular matters had been abrogated.” And, continued Penrose, “There is credible evidence suggesting that one or more members of the Board of Trustees, present at [the task force] meetings ... unduly influenced its early deliberations.”
Mesa’s John Crocitti sees in the task force recommendations the influence of the “Pathways” movement. “It’s the latest train in education reform to come through the station,” he says. The movement, which has been percolating in the Columbia University Department of Education,“wants students entering college to declare a major right off the bat and stay on that track until they graduate. Don’t take any classes for general interest or exploration that don’t contribute to your major.”
Faculty at Mesa have been enduring an onslaught of rhetoric lately about the benefits of the approach. The San Diego Community College District reports in its most recent budget a state grant called “Guided Pathways” totaling $1,318,672.”