In part two of our discussion about general education, we saw how making the bachelor’s degree a prerequisite for professional school create the U.S. liberal arts curriculum, but simultaneously it separated undergraduate education from the “real world.”

General education requirements were introduced to try and bridge this gap.

We can see early examples of this in the core courses universities introduced during the First World War. Columbia’s famous contemporary civilization course was initially called “War Aims.” Stanford and Dartmouth followed suit with courses on “Problems of Citizenship.” Williams called its version “American National Problems.” Eventually these became the common “Western Civ” requirements.

These core courses had a social motive to give students a common understanding of society, shared value judgments, universal traits and outlooks, and a collective experience that would bind society together. Columbia’s other famous core course, “Literature Humanities,” was organized initially by English Professor John Erskine, who was worried that new immigrants and especially Jewish students, would not share in the common culture of the “great Anglo-Saxon writers.” In 1934, Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling (a student of Erskine’s) revived this as “The Colloquium in Important Books.”

Harvard’s core originated in a 1945 report “General Education in a Free Society,” which became known as “The Redbook” (because of its crimson binding). Harvard President James Bryant Conant (who served from 1933 to 1953) discovered that the elective system had, indeed, created more courses, but he also hoped to create a meritocracy and began using the new SAT test for admissions. Conant thought the elective system was too easy to game and not integrated enough. But “The Redbook” also had a clear social motive to give students “a common … understanding of the society which they will possess in common” as Americans at the beginning of the Cold War. General education was, in other words, driven by fears of increasing social mobility and declining moral authority in a time of national crisis.

To make a long story very short, as both the canon and society were opened up in the 1960s, curricular cores had to change; they became about method and learning how to learn. Brown introduced “Modes of Thought” courses in 1969, and Harvard created a core in 1970 requiring students to take courses in 7 or 11 areas (still extra-departmental). In 1974, Michigan introduced “Approaches to Knowledge.”

Some of this also represents a crisis of confidence in what the “core” knowledge or context might be for all students, which was also part of the 1960s revolution. As the college population and the faculty began to diversify, scholars began to study new and more diverse traditions. Faculty and students specifically rejected many of the common “value judgments” of the old core. The same books assigned to bind us together, could also alienate.

In the same way that Barzun and Trilling at Columbia taught books that were “important” (and not because of great truths they contained), the renamed “Western Civ” programs justified their core texts simply as a common heritage. I taught in a Great Works first-year course at Stanford in the 1980s. While it did include great works by women and colonized people, it was still largely the Western intellectual tradition. I liked that the title made clear it was a value judgment, but I am still of two minds about this issue.

As a musician, I want to teach work I think is great, but I also feel compelled to teach work I think is important (even when it is not to my taste). A work can be “great” for a variety of reasons and within a tremendous variety of aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual systems. (All judgments are institutional or cultural in a way.) As a teacher, I try to help students understand why someone thinks these works are important, and having a wider variety of texts and cultures is helpful in that. (It demonstrates, for example, that there are many ways to evaluate greatness.) But I also think understanding the Western intellectual tradition is important—and useful!—for living in the West, in the same way that being able to write clear standard English is useful.

Teaching in England taught me that I write like an American: One of my British department chairs took the time to point out that my style was “far too breezy, direct, and concise.” I was encouraged to be “less Hemingway and more scholarly”—even in email! My point is I learned to recognize the value of different styles without having to prioritize one as being best. I still speak to my jazz friends in a very different language than I use in class or in my academic prose. Is there a way to teach both great works and important skills without privileging one tradition? Is there a way to keep one foot in the real world, while still fostering that love of learning for its own sake?

Suppose the point of general education (and perhaps even the graduation standard) was the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at once? Previous editions of general education tried both to bridge the gap between the liberal arts and the real world and prepare students to live in that same real world. Imagine the real-world implications for our nation if opening minds was the outcome of general education?

PART FOUR: Ways of Knowing

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