The General Education Curriculum in US Colleges and Universities

The General Education Curriculum in U.S. Colleges and
Universities from 1975 to 2000: Eurocentrism versus
Multiculturalism and their impact
on curriculum models in California
Roni Reingold
The general education requirements that are part of the undergraduate
curriculum in the United States became a topic of great controversy in
American society and academia during the last quarter of the twentieth
century. This controversy concerned what role, if any, cultural content and
values should play in the general education curriculum, as well as the degree
to which this curriculum should reflect the cultural diversity in the United
States. First, this thesis provides a historical review of the development and
evolution of the contrasting theoretical approaches to general education.
Second, an analysis of curricular models, based on the differing schools of
thoughts, is presented. These models are illustrated by considering case
studies of general education programs used in colleges and universities in the
ethnically diverse State of California.
The historical antecedents of the debate concerning the nature of the general
education curriculum can be traced back to the cultural wars that occurred
during the student rebellion in the nineteen-sixties, involving a power struggle
between oppressed groups such as African Americans, bisexuals, gays and
lesbians, and feminists against the predominantly white, male establishment
that advocated traditional conservative, "Western" values.
Following the student rebellion, the controversy concerning the general
education curriculum received intense scrutiny mainly within academic circles,
with the different ideological camps proposing very different programs.
Several factors led to this debate gaining national prominence in public
discourse and media, and in the political arena. One such factor was the
publication of several best sellers during the late nineteen-eighties, the most
influential of which of was Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American
Mind, discussing the role of cultural values in the American society in general,
and in academia in particular. A second factor was the intense confrontation
at Stanford University in 1988 that resulted in dramatic changes to the general
education curriculum. Specifically, a Eurocentric program, named "Western
Culture", was replaced with a multicultural program referred to as "Cultures,
Ideas & Values" (C.I.V.). The struggle which led to these changes at Stanford
was not confined to academic circles. Prominent political figures, such as
William Bennett, who was George Bush's education minister at the time, and
Jesse Jackson, a leading African American activist and an influential member
of the Democratic party, played essential roles in bringing national attention to
this confrontation.
Finally, in the nineteen-nineties, numerous articles in the popular press,
documentaries, television programs, and scientific or pseudo-scientific books
and publications that dealt with the Eurocentrism versus Multiculturalism
debate were produced.
The present research is based on interpretation and analysis of a wide range
of texts including popular publications and media (magazines, books,
television, documentaries), academic research, articles in student
newspapers, internal memos and position papers, and minutes of committee
and senate meetings involving curricular reforms. In addition, of primary
importance was the analysis of specific course materials including syllabi,
course descriptions and rationales, and reading and viewing lists.
Textual analysis was performed based on the border pedagogy approach
advocated by postmodernist scholars such as Michel Foucault, and "CriticalPedagogy" scholars such as Henry A. Giroux. One of the important
assumptions underlying the present textual analysis was that none of the
sources should be regarded as a secondary source because they all reflect
the beliefs and positions of the proponents, and as such, are an integral part
of the debate itself.
In the first part of the thesis, positions and developments are discussed in
chronological order. Occasionally, the chronological order is temporarily
disrupted in order to provide a comprehensive exposition of a particular
scholar or ideological camp. In the second part of the thesis, selected general
education programs are presented and analyzed to illustrate specific
curricular models. Such models represent examples of concrete
manifestations of the more comprehensive theoretical and ideological
positions discussed in the first part of the thesis. Given that much of the
debate revolves around the issue of multiculturalism, the programs selected
as illustrations were taken from universities and colleges in California, which
is the most culturally and ethnically diverse state in the United States with
large populations of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and
Native Americans. In addition, California is at the forefront of the struggle of
other minorities, such as bisexuals, gays and lesbians and feminists.
At the first phase of the struggle over the general education curriculum there
were four major schools of thought:
The extreme eurocentric approach – this approach argued for a return
to an exclusive focus on Western cultural content and values. This camp
believes that this culture constitutes universal, absolute truths and values.
The moderate eurocentric approach – this approach argued for general
education to be predominantly based on Western cultural content and values,
but acknowledged the potential importance of other world or minority cultures.
The radical multicultural approach – this approach was based on the
politics of identity and argued for an exclusive focus on the cultural
contributions and products of oppressed minority groups in the United States.
The ethnocentric non-Western approach – this approach was proposed
primarily by afrocentric scholars who argued that any particular oppressed
group should exclusively focus on the cultural achievements of members of
that minority as a means for developing ethnic pride. They further argue that
these achievements were hidden by the Western elite for the purpose of
subjugating and controlling minorities.
In the nineteen-eighties the moderate eurocentric approach evolved into an
approach termed "Multicultural pluralism". The primary tenet of this approach
is that the American culture is largely Western in content and values, but that
it was influenced by the contributions of non-Western cultures and minority
groups within the United States. Accordingly, this approach advocated
maintaining focus on Western culture but supplementing general education
programs with substantial introduction to non-Western cultures.
In the nineteen-nineties multiculturalism became the predominant conceptual
framework toward general education. This involved the emergence of several
new approaches. One of which was named the "American cultures"
approach. According to this approach, all of the different ethnic groups
produced substantial cultural contributions throughout the American history,
even if some of these contributions went unrecognized due to oppression by
the dominant Western elite. This approach was based on the politics of
diversity that recognized that all ethnic cultures are essential building blocks in
the formation of the American meta-culture. Furthermore, the liberal left
advocated additional approaches that called for cultural and social
transformation in the United States based on the principles of democracy and
social justice. This led to the proposal of curricula based on a combination of
multiculturalism and critical pedagogy.
The Neo-Marxist non-liberal left advocated another approach based on a
combination of multiculturalism and critical pedagogy.
In parallel to the development of the different schools of thought, specific
models of general education requirements emerged. Some of the early
models included a eurocentric curriculum as well as an afrocentric or
ethnocentric curriculum, with the former including Western culture courses,
and the latter exclusively focusing on a particular ethnic culture.
Subsequently, a whole variety of multicultural curricular models were created,
including more radical ones which required only non-Western courses (ethnic
studies) as well as ones which were based on multicultural pluralism that
allowed selecting courses from a variety of Western and non-Western
courses. In addition, in the nineteen-nineties, the "Association of American
Colleges and Universities" (AAC&U), a voluntary association of colleges and
universities to discuss and debate academic and curricular issues, proposed
several general education curricular models. In the first half of the nineteennineties it proposed the "American cultures" model and subsequently, a model
that combines multiculturalism and critical pedagogy.
The controversy surrounding the general education curriculum investigated in
this thesis may provide interesting theoretical and practical implications for the
growing interest and discussion concerning multiculturalism and multicultural
education in Israel. As in any attempt to generalize beyond a particular
cultural and sociological context, caution must be exercised. It is clear that
Israeli and American societies differ substantially on a multitude of cultural
and sociological dimensions. Nevertheless, the author of the thesis, who
considers himself a social activist, argues that studying the history of the
controversy in the United States may provide a very valuable perspective for
Israeli researchers and educators.