chapter  2
8 Pages

The problem of general education in the research university

ByMichael Schudson

Tenured and tenure-track faculty members at research universities lead multiple lives. Each one has not only a professional life and a private life, but also multiple professional lives. They live in a national or global world of scholarship in their own discipline or subdiscipline, but they also live a local, territorially situated life at a particular university. And there they are often engaged in a range of activities that their professional colleagues around the world will know little or nothing about. One part of this somewhat cloistered, practically clandestine professional experience concerns teaching – and, for a significant minority of the faculty, this includes teaching outside their own department in courses and programs known as “general education.” “General education” refers to a specific set of programs in American higher education

intended to offset students’ focus on a disciplinary “major.” The related term, “liberal education,” refers to an educational ideal with roots in an older tradition of gentlemanly education once offered in European and American universities, normally based on a study of classical languages. General education refers specifically to aspirations institutionalized in twentieth-century American universities to preserve the spirit (although not the content) of a liberal education in the face of the decline of a common collegiate curriculum and a vocationalization of higher education. To put this another way, a tension has arisen in colleges, and especially in universities,

between a college ideal, in which the faculty are dedicated to “transmitting to young adults knowledge of the past so they may draw upon it as a living resource in the future,” and the research ideal, which takes the university to be about “creating new knowledge with the aim of superseding the past.”1 The two sides in this combat are not equally muscular forces; the research ideal dominates the college ideal in all so-called “research universities” – including every single one of the most prestigious universities in the USA. The minority of faculty at these institutions who try to keep the flame of the college ideal burning feel beleaguered. As Columbia’s Andrew Delbanco writes, “On a campus mainly devoted to research and graduate training,

those of us who focus on college teaching sometimes feel like Jonah in the belly of the whale.”2