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Faculty chair Richard Beam discusses education as product, process or both at Opening Assembly

Richard Beam, associate professor of theater and chair of the Faculty Senate, delivered remarks to the faculty following the chancellor at the Opening Assembly on Wednesday, Aug. 19.  Text of Beam’s address, titled “Education: Product or Process? Maybe both?” is below.

Richard Beam

Richard Beam

“If you were at our closing meeting last spring, you know that the chancellor charged the provost and me to ‘…meet this summer and hammer out a process for beginning to create a current institutional statement with regard to general education.’  We have done so and our report has been sent to the chancellor.  He has indicated that this report will be shared with the entire campus and, it is my hope that we, the faculty, will proceed with this important task with care, but with attention to getting the job done. The last time we undertook such a study, a number of years ago, I believe that it took far too long.

I don’t wish to rehash the discussions the provost and I had this past summer, nor do I wish to prescribe any particular outcome. I believe that the provost and I have described a process that will allow our university outcome to be developed through our departments, colleges and as an entire faculty.

I would like to take this opportunity to talk briefly about a related question. This question has come to my attention in a variety of situations over the past few months, but I believe that it must be a part of this broad discussion. That question is whether education, what we are all engaged in, is a process, or a product.

As I understand it, the idea of education as a process focuses on general knowledge and basic skill acquisition. The idea of education as a product focuses on the specific knowledge and skills related to a particular discipline or job market. There has been considerable discussion, particularly in recent years, over the appropriateness of both of these foci in higher education. I won’t pretend that I can resolve this question in a few minutes. I probably can’t even adequately summarize the arguments in the time available.

On the other hand, it is my opinion that, as we approach the notion of redefining what I’m going to call ‘General Studies,’ that these two points of view are, in fact, fundamental to our process. You see, I think that education, especially higher education, must partake of both.

I believe that we do (or should) in fact, create a product: an educated person capable of entering the work force and making a contribution to society through his or her efforts. It seems to me that this is, essentially, why we have professional degree programs and, within liberal arts, why we have majors. They exist, I think, to develop the appropriate skills and knowledge to work within a specific discipline or to engage in a particular profession. That’s what many believe education is, or should be, in its entirety.  This is, in fact, much of the expectation of many of our students, their families and much of society at large; it’s ‘job training.’ They believe, I think, that higher education is simply an essential part of the process of creating a useful member of society. That it is a necessity in order to be able to engage in meaningful employment. Some even think that’s about all higher education should be.

I think there is a catch to this idea, though. I believe that the catch is that, no matter how good we are or how hard we try, we can only teach up to the moment. In other words, in a changing society (and society is changing at what they tell me is an ever-increasing rate) what we can teach ends at the moment we teach it. We cannot know what is to come, so we can’t fully prepare our students for the future in what we teach as a product. This brings me to the idea of education as a process.

I believe that what is meant by the notion of education as a process is that it is intended to prepare our students to meet the challenges that change will bring, by providing them with some basic background and skills: an understanding of where our society came from, how it functions and when it does not, what it means to be human and how to acquire the skills necessary to understand these ideas and to communicate them to others.

When we say, ‘WCU offers opportunities for those who aspire to make a difference in their world,’ I believe that we mean that we wish to do more than just ‘job training;’ that we are trying to prepare our students to make a difference, to be able to face the challenges of a future we cannot know and for them to be able to lead the way in making that world better. To me, that suggests that a Western Carolina education must focus on more than just training in a specific discipline or profession. It must also focus, at least to some extent, on that background information and those basic skills that will allow our graduates to adapt to and fully participate in their world as informed citizens. That means, at least to me, that they need some understanding of those issues that seem likely to have an impact on the world of the future, and the skills to be able to work with others to cope with them. Please note that I do believe that this also includes the skills needed to continue to grow in their selected discipline, or profession.

I would like to suggest that this background information and these basic skills are the particular focus of what I am calling ‘General Studies.’ I believe that these two points of view, product and process, truly complement each other. While we must prepare our students for ‘real life,’ we must also prepare them to deal with a complex and changing world. I believe that the role of ‘General Studies’ is to play a primary role in education as a process, whereas the major, or degree track, is to play the primary role in education as a product.

As we approach our work of developing an ‘…institutional statement with regard to general education,’ it is my hope that we can focus on what I see as the real issue here. That is, to give careful consideration to what all educated people should know and be able to do, regardless of their specific degree program or discipline of study, in order to be able to function as a productive member of society for the next 50 years. (I’ve limited this to the next 50 years because that will cover much of most of our students’ expected life span and because I would hope that in much less time than that, those who follow us will have engaged in this process again, with the insight of their own present.)

I won’t tell you what the result of our consideration should be because I don’t pretend to know. However, I suspect that, if we begin our discussion of ‘General Studies’ with a focus on what all educated people should know and be able to do, we will be able to agree on some very fundamental ideas and skills that should be a part of their ‘General Studies’ at Western Carolina. I think that we can get some assistance in this discussion from the UNC-Tomorrow Commission report and our own Quality Enhancement Plan. I don’t believe that this will be easy. It will take a good deal of careful thought, and a great deal of hard work, but I believe that it is possible to arrive at a general agreement, because I believe that there are areas of common interest.

I foresee the possibility of there being some desire for individual colleges to place some particular emphasis on one, or more, specific areas within any ‘General Studies’ program that might result. I believe that that might be acceptable. 

But, it seems to me, that there are ideas and skills that are, or should be, common to all. I believe that it is on these commonalities that a ‘General Studies’ program should focus, as it is these commonalities that speak to our common desire to create graduates who can fully participate in the future.

It might be desirable, and reasonable, to allow some room within our curricula for colleges, or schools, to create additional requirements that are specific to their interests. These could be enhanced requirements in specific areas, even drawing from disciplines in other colleges. Certainly, we should be open to consider any and all ideas. I do not believe, however, that such variant requirements should be a part of a university-wide ‘General Studies’ program. I believe that this program, whatever form it takes, should be for all Western Carolina students.

If individual units wish additional requirements, we should try to find room to allow for that, but specific college needs or desires should not be the dominant concern here. What is best for all of our students should be our focus in ‘General Studies.’

What I think I’m really suggesting here is that we are engaging in a consideration of exactly what we at Western believe it means to be an educated person in this age, and we are committing to redesign our curricula in accordance with that ideal. I believe that what I have called ‘General Studies’ is an essential part of this; it is the part that will, in the most basic sense, define what a Western Carolina education is, the true Western Carolina ‘brand,’ as it were. This may be the most important task we have undertaken in a long time. I know we will engage in this discussion with vigor, passion and respect. I look forward to an interesting year. I hope that you have a great one.”

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