What is General Education?
Underlying the General Education program at NUS is the concept of an educated person, expressed as:
Regardless of the choice of the major, there is a broad range of knowledge, abilities, predispositions and attitudes that we expect of a university graduate, collectively serving as the hallmark of higher education.
General Education Modules are different from other modules in two respects. First, they are general in the sense that they aim at those aspects of knowledge and abilities that we expect of educated individuals in general, not the knowledge and abilities that are required in the specialization in a particular discipline or profession. Second, they aim at education in the sense that they seek to inculcate higher order qualities of the mind and intellect that make a person educated, as opposed to the practical know-how and abilities that might be useful in one's daily life or contribute to success in career.
We expect well-trained scientists, doctors, historians, engineers, and lawyers to perform well in their domains of specialization and to be able to continue learning, but we expect well-educated scientists, doctors, historians, engineers, and lawyers to have the capacity to engage in inquiry outside their own spheres, participate in controversies of general interest, have the academic literacy to read The Economist, Scientific American, and The Times Literary Supplement with critical understanding, hold an informed discussion with other educated people from various cultural backgrounds, and be able to critically evaluate the assertions in newspaper articles.
GEMs have a two-fold emphasis on intellectual broadening (as reflected in the General Knowledge modules) and on critical and creative thinking (as reflected in the Modes of Inquiry modules). Breadth of knowledge imparts to the student a sense of the vast and interconnected domains of knowledge, and prepares the student to make new and novel interconnections between apparently disparate and disconnected concepts within and across disciplines. An understanding of how knowledge is obtained and validated in the various fields of specializations prepares the student to critically analyze new and unforeseen problems, and provides tools for creative solutions to these problems.
The ingredients of learning that are of special importance to GEMs may be briefly outlined as follows:
- Knowledge as information: the information that is of value to all educated people, but has some intellectual content.
- Knowledge as understanding, which crucially involves the interconnectedness of knowledge. For instance, the pattern that connects dark clouds, rain, thunder and lightning in the phenomenon of thunderstorms, the concept of molecules that connects dark clouds and rain to the boiling and freezing of water and the working of the thermometer, and the concept of electric charge that runs through lightning, epilepsy, and semi-conductors.
- Knowledge as critical understanding, which crucially involves an appreciation of the justification for our convictions, that is the evidence and/or reasoning that supports (or refutes) what we take to be knowledge. For instance, what is the evidence to believe that the earth is spinning on its axis, or that there is a genetic basis for human language?
- Critical and creative thinking in the application of knowledge.
- Understanding of modes of inquiry. This involves a global appreciation of the ways of identifying and formulating interesting problems/questions to be solved/answered, strategies of gathering relevant information, interpreting/analyzing/explaining the patterns in the information, arriving at conclusions, critically evaluating the credibility of conclusions, justifying the conclusions, responding to potential objections, and so on.
- Developing an appreciation of the interconnectedness of modes of inquiry. For instance, the strategy of experimentation common to psychology and physics, the strategy of arguing from axioms or axiomatic commitments in mathematics and philosophy, the similarity between history, evolutionary biology, forensics, archeology and big bang theory in their preoccupation with the past.
- Critical and creative thinking in the application of modes of inquiry. This involves gaining mastery of the modes of inquiry through firsthand experience of inquiry.
We do not expect every GEM to aim at each of the above equally well. Different modules may select and emphasize different combinations. Some may chose to concentrate on, say, items 1 or item 6, while others may choose to focus on 3, 5, and 7. It is natural to expect a wide range of diversity of approaches and foci in GEMs, provided the primary goals of General Education are met.