For most institutions, this core liberal arts mission happens in the general education curriculum, a unique feature of U.S. higher education.


Today, we have two broad types of general education: the distribution model and the core model. Most colleges use the distribution model, where students get “breadth” by taking a mandated variety of courses within different departments. This gives both faculty and students great flexibility. A core system (like Columbia’s) works differently: Here all students take a set of extra-departmental courses specially designed for this purpose. Many colleges (like Goucher) have a mix of the two.


These two models represent two very different conceptions of the liberal arts. The distribution model says the liberal arts can’t be reduced to any specific body of knowledge. Basically, any and every course in general education will provide students with a way of thinking that is more important than specific content. (I like this idea, but I suspect we don’t connect things as well as we could.) The core model is the reverse: Specific ideas, values, and texts matter—not just any literature course will do. (I like this idea, too, but mostly because of the idea of a common intellectual experience.)


To understand the roots of general education, we need to start in the 19th century, when a bachelor’s degree consisted only of required courses. Before this, there weren’t any general education or majors. In the 1860s, college enrollments were declining, in part because students were given the choice between a bachelor’s degree OR an easier and more professional degree in law, medicine, or science.


When Charles Eliot arrived as the president of Harvard in 1869, half of the law students and almost three-quarters of the medical students had not previously been to college and did not hold undergraduate degrees. At the time, Harvard Law School had no admissions requirements beyond evidence of “good character” and the ability to pay the hundred-dollar tuition.Eliot had the brilliant idea that the bachelor’s degree could be a prerequisite for professional or graduate school (instead of being a separate equal path). This raised standards and made the professional schools more selective. Eliot had returned from Europe influenced by the German model, where universities of greater disciplinary specificity had become a national economic engine through research, and he introduced both ideas to U.S. higher education. This also led him to create separate professional (graduate) doctoral programs in 1872.
One final Eliot innovation was the introduction of the elective system. If students were going to get professional training later, then the undergraduate degree could be, as he wrote in The Atlantic, “the enthusiastic study of subjects for the love of them without any ulterior objects.” (Eliot’s critics also pointed out that electives brought a loss of coherence, depth, AND breadth.)


All of these innovations—the bachelor’s degree as preparation for graduate school, the creation of autonomous departmental fields of study, the elective system, and an emphasis on research—were all widely imitated. They were all expensive, but Harvard could afford it. Eliot understood this, but he bargained that faculty would support it because they could teach what they wanted. By allowing students to choose professors—Eliot also created the modern course with a name, number, and professor listed—he also hoped teaching would improve. Most of the schools that copied this Harvard model, of course, did not have the same resources, but this collection of ideas has defined U.S. higher education ever since.


This kind of curricular freedom radically changed U.S. higher education. The absolute separation of undergraduate education from the vocational professional schools, and the separation of knowledge into individual disciplines, triumphed, created the U.S. liberal arts ideal, and opened the door for a massive expansion of bachelor’s degrees. However, it also created a stubborn resistance to connecting undergraduate learning across disciplines and with the “real world.” General education was invented to try and bridge the gap between both the disciplines inside the academy and the world beyond its walls.


PART THREE: Education and the “real world”

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