Pathways to Nowhere? Critical Reflections on the New GE

The revised GE (Connections) has not found enough space in the pages of our newspaper or even in conversations around the College that students are involved in. As an attempt to embark upon a corrective, I thought it would be worth investigating the way that Connections is represented on the Conn website.

Most people have heard that the existing general education system will be eliminated in favor of a revamped one. What is this change? Instead of seven GE Areas, students in the classes of 2020 – ’22 will have to take one class in each of five Modes of Inquiry to fulfill their GE (i.e. 5 classes). After class of 2022, the GE will require all students to complete one Integrative Pathway (i.e. 4 classes).

The five Modes of Inquiry that are replacing the seven GE Areas are: Creative Expression, Critical Interpretation and Analysis, Quantitative and Formal Reasoning, Scientific Inquiry and Analysis, and Social and Historical Inquiry. Clearly, this set of options closely resembles the existing schema of seven GE areas, the only changes being that all the social sciences and humanities are now consolidated into “Social and Historical Inquiry,” eliminating the three earlier options of “Social Sciences,” “Philosophy and Religious Studies,” and “Historical Studies.” Such a change, at best, has reduced the exposure a student has to the humanities and social sciences, but most of the rest remains the same.

But one could say this criticism is moot. What matters most, after all, is the Integrative Pathways, since they are going to be the long-run product of curricular revision. An Integrative Pathway consists of four courses organized around a common theme or set of questions. Each class in a Pathway must use a different Mode of Inquiry towards the same theme. In theory, pathways are an effort to make general education more intentional and thematic as opposed to a random selection of courses that are only taken to fulfill a graduation requirement.

It is heartening to see that Pathways look to use different methodologies to interrogate the same set of questions since this means that Pathways do not just provide students knowledge on a subject but aim to show students how knowledge is produced in different disciplines (assuming that MOI courses will foreground a way of thinking as well as their course content, which is a shaky assumption at this point).

What I am concerned with, however, is the work that a “pathway” might do when there is no consensus on where ought to lead, and what modes of inquiry are good for unless there is clarity on what should be inquired into and why.

The news story from 2015 that first announces the launch of Connections features the college career of a hypothetical student, Sarah. This student is described as someone who comes to college interested in the environment, Spanish, and economics. Once in college, the website tries to show how all of the interests that Sarah comes to college with are nurtured as she takes classes on environmental issues, pursues an economics major, and studies abroad in Peru. Sarah takes a class on “Global Capitalism and Indigenous Religious Practices” and at the same time is deeply interested in her economics major, pursuing more classes in economics and statistics. She takes economic development classes on her SATA Peru trip and soon after interns with an NGO in Peru which works with indigenous communities on environmental issues.

The story of Sarah is a story of progress and growth, one in which she comes to Conn ready with interests that the College is responsible for nurturing and connecting with each other to fashion into a feasible (and fashionably “social justice” oriented) career. The various things that Sarah studies at Conn help her grow, as if from a seed to a plant, in one inevitable direction. She not only retain but goes further in all of her interests and makes them operational. The message is clear: Connecticut College will make your dreams come true, whatever they might be. It will provide a pathway to wherever you want.

Yet, Sarah could only be a hypothetical person. She only “grows” but does not change. To gain any deep understanding of global capitalism, or struggles for justice amongst indigenous communities, will necessarily mean that one will have to understand that a lot of these struggles for justice are precisely struggles against “economic development.” Sarah’s interests, if pursued deeply, contain each other’s undoings. She could not just have “grown” but would have been forced to change, to make choices – gasp – political choices.

But such a story of rupture, discontinuity, and political reorientation is not one the Conn website could have told because education has to be marketed as apolitical, or it does not sell.

I experienced a rupture such as Sarah’s first-hand. I came to college with goals of being a development economist, goals which were derailed upon taking a history course in which I discovered that development does not do what I thought it does, and discovered also that the economics discipline is not conducive to the study of capitalist inequalities because of its own complicities in the existing system. In taking this class, I came to seriously question the categories of analysis and description that economists use to make sense of the world, and this resulted in me losing my interest in economics and changing into a different kind of person. The disciplines did not merely work together to provide me a politically neutral set of “skills” which I could use to do whatever I wanted. The disciplines instead undid each other’s foundations.

Sarah is the College’s way of saying that there is a middle way – between the College clearly mandating things that all students must learn before graduating (something a common core curriculum would do), and just making students jump through a random set of hoops so they can graduate (which the current GE does). Connections seems to want to impart a neutral set of “skills” to students that they can use to achieve whatever they would like, only tempering this vocational “skill learning” by mandating “thematic” commonalities to a student’s GE. But what constitutes a theme? What themes should do, why have them? There’s nothing but silence on the matter.

Connections seems to have found a way to continue avoiding clear learning goals, or a clear mission statement that names the goals this education attempts to accomplish. Instead it sets up a free market model of education in which the College is “the marketplace of skills and ideas,” a neutral forum in which anything can be exchanged, imparted, bought, and sold. Instead of taking the whole institution to task by establishing a clarity about what kind of learning should happen and why, Connections once again lets the College get away with tough unanswered questions – what does Connecticut College stand for, what is it trying to produce in the world, and why does it exist at all?