The Big Questions and General Education

From: “Brainstorms” – the blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education (on-line forum, October 3, 2008)

By Stanley Katz

Last week I attended a seminar on the history of general education with a number of other people who are trying to think how general education might best be presented to college students. Many of us are familiar with the larger outlines of the story, which begins with the World War I efforts at Columbia University and travels through Robert Maynard Hutchins’s University of Chicago to James Bryant Conant’s Harvard.

The standard story, of course, ignores many interesting and promising developments at less well-known institutions, and in any case becomes too complicated to follow in the post-general-education era of the 1970s and beyond — multiple versions of “core” curricula, and much more. But the larger idea of a more general education persists, even though it means many different things to many different people.

I have been asked to carry on a “conversation” on the subject at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Seattle this coming January — I suppose because many of us committed to liberal education (whatever we mean by that phrase) cannot get it out of our heads that we owe our students something more than disciplinary (or professional) education.

But we also know that students are voting (by selecting majors) for the practical — The Chronicle reported on September 9 that the number of majors in economics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has risen from 183 to 442 over the past decade. I believe that economics is currently the largest field of concentration at my own liberal-arts university. And in larger universities, such as Wisconsin, the School of Commerce probably attracts as many or more concentrators. Overall, of course, the problem is not so much the decline in enrollments in the humanities and social sciences, as the flight from the arts and sciences. Physics and math are hurting too, and for the same reasons.

One emerging response to this situation is a growing emphasis on “asking the big questions,” as President Robert Connor of the Teagle Foundation has been suggesting for the past couple of years. Another is the grant program recently initiated by Chairman Bruce Cole at the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Enduring Questions.” The program will provide small grants for “pre-disciplinary” pilot courses that address “the most fundamental concerns of the humanities.” Yet another version is the movement by politically conservative funders to (according to The New York Times) attempt “a different approach on college campuses.” While one of the conservative funders is quoted as saying that he desires courses that “work against the thrust of programs and courses in gender, race and class studies, and post-modernism in general,” most of the grant recipients seem to be creating very traditional Great Books courses of one sort or another.

I will come back in another blog to the political question raised by these explicitly conservative-funded programs. What interests me for the moment is a small but growing emphasis on seeking underclass (freshman and sophomore) curricula focusing on universal questions. This was explicitly one of the goals of traditional general-education programs, after all — when I was an undergraduate, one of our general-education choices was a humanities course on “Good and Evil and Western Culture.” But can we turn the clock back to such courses? Is such a move necessarily political? If not, how can we integrate such courses into the mainstream of undergraduate education so that economics majors in Madison will enroll in them and benefit from them? Is there a better way to resurrect general education?

Stanley Katz teaches public and international affairs and directs the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at the Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is a past president of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society for Legal History. He comments frequently on policy issues relating to higher education, particularly liberal education, and on the humanities and social sciences, philanthropy, scholarly relations with Cuba, and the interplay of civil society, constitutionalism, and democracy. And on his beloved Cubs. [Who don’t seem to be doing too well at the moment…]

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