Carneige report urges revival of 'common learning' in US schools

America's educational system has lost its sense of purpose and direction, according to Ernest L. Boyer, former United States commissioner of education. Starting at the college level, restoration of a clear purpose is urgently needed if US education is to deal with the problem of "the cynicism and disillusionment of the younger generation," Dr. Boyer warns.

Now president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning, Boyer teamed with Arthur Levine, Carnegie Foundation senior fellow, to produce a book-length report titled "A Quest for Common Learning." It is based on a study of college programs across the US.

The Boyer-Levine answer is to provide an education which "reconnects" students with society. Helping students experience "the connectedness of things ," Boyer explains, would be a major step toward replacing student alienation with a sense of shared responsibilities.

In a conference of top educators last week, sponsored at the University of Chicago by the Carnegie Foundation, the Boyer-Levine report was presented.

The authors found serious, growing problems on college campuses. They heard demands for answers to such problems as "the Watergate morality, declining student academic performance, increasing undergraduate vocationalism and specialization, disinterest in the responsibilities of citizenship, and much more."

Boyer told the conference that deeply concerned students are being turned away by "not having their key questions dealt with in courses where faculty are using the same notes year after year."

The Carnegie Foundation report calls for a new campus commitment to answering student needs. As a first step, Boyer and Levine want colleges and universities to revive "general education," which they define as "learning that should be common to all people."

The report leaves open the question of whether this common core of learning should be based on strict course requirements. Focusing on broader issues, the report concludes that all undergraduates should be given ways to explore six key areas of human sharing:

* "The use of symbols," covering the whole range of verbal and nonverbal communication.

* "Memberships in groups and institutions," showing how any individual both benefits from and owes responsibilities to a great variety of social structures.

* "The activities of production and consumption," which tie each individual into a complex social network of supply and demand.

* "A relationship with nature," whereby students can perceive and evaluate a world tied not only to the traditional disciplines such as biology but to new areas such as nuclear energy, space exploration, and environmental trade-offs.

* "A sense of time," so that students make the leap from studying history to understanding how past, present, and future intertwine.

* "Values and beliefs," to provide the tools for seeing where different values and beliefs come from and for reevaluating them constantly.

This six-point program is designed to redirect US education. The problem identified in the report is that students have become caught up in specialization, vocationalism, and "the call for individual gratification." Stating that the present "bankrupt" general education system ignores student needs, the report concludes that "Sadly, most colleges exacerbate this tendency toward self-preoccupation and social isolation."

Boyer and Levine have studied the two most recent swings of the pendulum toward general education and away from individualism. Those took place after World War I and World War II. The report documents how following those two eras , as repeatedly during three centuries of education in America, the pendulum swung back "toward personal and national isolation."

In the 1980s, however, Boyer expects that general education not only is more urgently needed than ever before, but that "common learning" is here to stay. "I have the feeling we are entering a time when the interconnections cannot be avoided as we did in the past," says boyer. "In our world of greater independence, we may not have the luxury of forgetting general education again."

Citing the current world energy situation, for instance, Boyer says that it's up to the schools and colleges to show students how the local gas pump is directly connected to the Middle East. Failure to understand such farreaching interdependence, he explains, lies behind the frustrations which create alienation and social fragmentation.

Helping students understand our interconnected world should be the central purpose of a college education, according to the Carnegie Foundation report. Yet it concludes that currently "on campus after campus, there is no agreement about the meaning of a college education."

Along with offering a more meaningful education, the Carnegie report's recommended change in direction promises a bonus that fits in well with the nation's current budget-cutting mood. The report concludes that reviving general education offers a way "to reduce the cost of instruction for colleges." And based on his own experience as US commissioner of education from 1977 to 1979, Dr. Boyer told the Monitor that implementing the recommendations requires only new thinking, not any new federal funding .

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