Most liberal arts colleges still have some general-education requirements, although many only require some distribution of academic areas. We are still hesitant to define a core of knowledge, and I find that healthy (despite my personal enthusiasm for Plato and his audacious attempt in The Republic to prove that doing good is really good for us. Perhaps I just find this a core question for any happy life.)

What are we actually trying to accomplish, and how might we rethink general education in a liberal arts context?

U.S. writer and academic Louis Menand suggests that the liberal arts have their roots in knowledge we pursue with “disinterest.” As Menand writes: “Garbage is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship.” (This idea has its roots in some of the academic history discussed in part one of this blog series. Academic freedom and the move to distinguish scholarship as “value-neutral” were a way of balancing the religious roots of most U.S. universities. John Dewey and Arthur Lovejoy founded the American Association of University Professors in 1915 partly to make sure religious or political views were not the basis for hiring, but it was also part of the professionalization of faculty. Is scholarship really disinterested and devoid of personal values? Should it be?

One side of the coin is the benefit to analyzing all sides of an issue from the relative safety of the blackboard (or the Ivory Tower). Americans tend to use “academic” as a pejorative synonym for “theoretical,” “abstract,” or even “useless,” but theory and “disinterest” are useful precisely because they provide us with an abstract space to play with alternatives without having to make up our minds. Planning for contingencies that have not and might not happen is the essence of practical strategy—for games, business, or life.

The ability to always see the other side of a debate or issue can, of course, also be debilitating (and incredibly irritating to your children). While we mistakenly draw a clear bright line between theory and practice, we do, in fact, often need action, which requires a decision. Art works the same way: There may be lots of equally good or interesting ways to play Hamlet or paint a tree, but picking one at a time and doing it with conviction is essential for any good performance.

“Disinterest” is also seen as a pillar of science. We tend to privilege the “scientific method” as being separate from politics or bias, but even science is guided by the interests and priorities of scientists and the government. We can’t ever be entirely disinterested or rational, but disciplinary training provides a framework.

This is sometimes used as a justification for the humanities: Science may be peering intently at the real world, but it is using a lens, and the humanities is the study of that lens. Similarly, the “academic disinterest” of majors like classics or art is defended precisely because it is abstract and removed from the practical.

In his book Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation economist Tyler Cowan argues that we should emphasize the economic power of the humanities in business. He has a point: Creativity and an understanding of the human condition are surely useful in any enterprise. And these skills easily and often translate into employment. Still, I hesitate to make the value of general or liberal education purely economic.

As a musician and historian, I recognize that I am odd. I am comfortable with Kant’s definition of aesthetics as only the “useless” bit. (And while I think Kant’s task is impossible, I LOVE that he is trying to separate judgments of taste from judgments of beauty. So I find it a bit odd when folks try to defend something (the humanities or the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, for example) that I don’t feel needs defending. (No one feels the need to defend ice cream or chocolate.) But I am odd.

Academics call the units or departments of our world “disciplines.” These are internally consistent and self-governing systems of value. As the word “disciplines” implies, they provide discipline—a structure for organizing and verifying knowledge. They can, equally, be confining.

Another common function of general education, therefore, is to introduce students to the different disciplines (or systems of thought). More recently, some general-education programs are trying to create a space for a renewed desire for interdisciplinarity. (Remember that the question of whether to teach general education inside or outside the disciplines was an important difference between the distribution and core systems of general education.)

For all of this history and suspicion of the practical, the liberal arts are not truly disinterested. Many disciplines and institutions (like Goucher) are also deeply invested in the world, real problems, the character of our students, and especially our local community. Many liberal arts skills are also manifestly practical. Writing skills, for example, are at once a prime vehicle for thinking through abstract complex problems and the world’s most important job skill.

The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce has demonstrated that a college degree does, indeed, have a lifetime economic benefit: A bachelor’s degree is on average worth $1.3M more over a lifetime of earnings. That is great news, but I hope it is worth even more than that.

Goucher has joined the small group of schools using the Gallup/Purdue index to measure how specific experiences in college (like having a professor believe in your future success) have a profound impact on future workplace happiness.

General education has then been conceived as a way:
1- to stimulate learning for its own sake
2- to connect students to the real world
3- to give students a common cultural or intellectual vocabulary
4- to introduce students to a variety of ways of thinking.

Some of these seem mutually exclusive, and clarifying which of these matters for each program is an important first step in helping students understand how the pieces of a distribution system come together.

Content was never the primary goal of a liberal arts education, but with the increased pace of new knowledge and our easy access to more content on every device, thinking and analysis have become even more important. This makes integration evermore important in the design of our new general-education systems. The whole now truly has to be more than the sum of the pieces.


LAST PART: Happiness, values, and integration

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