Emory Report
February 20, 2006
Volume 58, Number 20


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February 20, 2006
Battle of the GERs: How should Emory pursue liberal arts?

by Chanmi Kim

What is a liberal arts education? Are Emory’s general education requirements (GERs) really a reflection of what the University wants to be? Are incoming freshmen “children” who need guidance to choose their courses? And what does it mean to say, “I have a bachelor’s degree?”

Such were the questions posed at Founders Week’s Emory in Perspective Debate, titled “The Future of Liberal Arts Education: GERs at Emory,” Feb. 8 in White Hall.

In the 90-minute panel discussion, the four participants—two faculty and two Emory College students—gave differing but thought-provoking perspectives on how Emory should define liberal arts education and how the undergraduate GERs should look.

The GER debate was brought to the University’s attention in January 2005, when College Council submitted a petition of 2,400 student signatures to Emory College’s Educational Policy Committee, asking to reform the GERs. It was therefore appropriate that senior and Student Government Association (SGA) President Amrit Dhir, who authored the report that accompanied the petition, opened the discussion. Dhir summarized the report and the types of changes students hoped to see, such as expanding the list of eligible courses (to include any course from a department’s offerings) to fulfill a requirement for a specific field.

Judy Raggi-Moore, senior lecturer of French and Italian and director of Italian studies, emphasized the importance of a well-rounded education.

“Students must be educated in what is meant by ‘liberal arts’ and guided to take courses that help them develop multifaceted, or multilayered, interpretive and decision-formulating skills—this cannot be achieved through the exclusive study of one discipline only,” she said. “I cannot help but wonder what frame of mind students… are in when they apply to a declared ‘liberal arts college’ and then object to the idea of training in the liberal arts.”

History Professor Patrick Allitt, who was raised in England and educated at Oxford University, argued in favor of more specialization (see First Person). He said that, in Britain, college graduates are much more learned in their particular disciplines due to the highly specialized nature of British undergraduate curriculums.

“The nation will benefit more from specialists,” Allitt said. “If a student hates math and has been forced to study it for 12 years, is there any gain for [him or her] to study it for a 13th year?”

Allitt, who is also director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum, proposed that undergraduates be given the option of receiving either a broad, liberal arts education or a more specialized one.

Another approach, suggested by senior Devin Murphy, is to revise the undergraduate curriculum to produce more “able practitioners” of various fields. “Greater efforts should be made,” Murphy said, “not only to incorporate practical experience into the curriculum, but also to revise the curriculum such that it views practitioners holistically and not through a disciplinary lens.”

“A student pursuing biology in hopes of becoming a scientist must deal with a set of realities beyond the realm of playing with fruit flies in a lab,” said Murphy, who is in his last semester majoring in interdisciplinary studies in society and culture. “Writing 25 pages in a grant writing or technical writing class designed for science majors will be much more useful than 25 pages on Oscar Wilde.”

Despite the range of opinions, all four participants agreed on one thing: Some change is necessary.

“The current system of GERs falls short of our ambitions and the goals of the faculty and the University,” Raggi-Moore said.