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The Purpose of General Education


When I was an undergraduate student, I used to have endless debates with my academic adviser about ways of getting around the general education requirements at my institution. I mean, I was an international relations major with an interest in math and philosophy, so why should I be forced to take classes in art history or laboratory science? Like most clever undergrads, I tried all kinds of avenues to get out of those requirements, but I was unsuccessful.

In hindsight, I’m very glad I was unsuccessful. Some of the most important courses of my undergraduate career were courses I took under duress, forced into them by the general education program requirements and by my advisor’s professional integrity in not supporting my efforts to evade them. Looking back, I’m especially glad I was forced to take a general education course entitled “The Impressionists and After,” since it gave me the opportunity to figure out precisely why I liked Monet and Degas, why I preferred them to Cezanne and Sisley, and precisely what was so darn revolutionary about painting myriad pictures of the same haystack and using an unusual color-palette in doing so.

In fact, I remember that course and its material better than I remember most of my major classes. In part that’s because after going to graduate school in Political Science I can no longer recall precisely which bits of my polisci knowledge came from undergrad and which came from grad school. What is true of graduate school, I think, is equally true of the working world, in that professional experiences after one’s undergraduate days will tend to deepen and replace some of the things one did while an undergraduate. Indeed, I’d say that those post-graduate experiences, whether in school or outside of it, are what one is most likely to draw on in one’s professional life—and how could it be otherwise, since the skills you learn in undergrad are likely to be out of date by the time you need to use them professionally?

I’ll go further. I do not believe that the purpose of undergraduate education—general education or otherwise—is to prepare students for the “real world,” if by “real world” we mean the world of professional work. Rather, undergraduate education is all about helping students become who they are, by giving them opportunities to explore a variety of areas of human knowledge and experience and start to chart their own course through it. This is fortunate, because (to give another example from my own experience) the computer programming class I took in undergrad, a class I thought would give me some real practical skills, did train me in the proper syntax for FORTRAN programs, but since no one uses FORTRAN much anymore, those skills turned out the be pretty useless. (Indeed, these days one doesn’t even need to know how to program a computer to use it, but once upon a time you did.) Times change; skills become outdated; even facts—like “the United States is in engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union”—aren’t immutable. If undergraduate education were about skills, it wouldn’t be worth much, since your education would have a very short half-life indeed.

Fortunately, that’s not what undergraduate education is all about. The point of taking classes in undergrad is to help you develop not skills and factual knowledge, but aptitudes and dispositions, to discover how various people and fields of study think about perennially important issues that seem to be more or less embedded in the human condition. And in discovering how various people and fields of study approach these issues, you can begin to craft yourself into a human being with a perspective on those issues. Issues of ethics, aesthetics, cultural and perspectival diversity, and the challenges of a global point of view. Not by accident, those form four of the program-wide goals of AU’s General Education program; the ability to communicate in written and oral forms, and the critical disposition that leads to a healthy skepticism about knowledge-claims until you have evaluated them for yourself, round out the list. That’s what general education is all about, and that’s why we don’t let students take just any course for General Education credit—we want to make sure that the courses we approve are actually intending to achieve those goals.

I had yet another occasion to think back to that art history class this past week, while in Europe attending a professional conference. I took half a day to go to the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, spending several hours wandering around looking at a vast array of brilliant paintings. While sitting in a darkened room viewing slides is no substitute for seeing such paintings in person, I can say beyond a doubt that sitting in a darkened room viewing slides was what made it possible for me to understand and appreciate what I was seeing in person in that museum. I’m no art historian, but because of that class I can look at a piece of post-impressionist art and place it in its proper context: I could see Munch’s visual nods to Van Gogh and Picasso, notice how his later work took on abstract expressionist elements, and make sense of his pictures of everyday urban life by setting them in a general movement towards the depiction of gritty everydayness instead of idyllic pastoral scenes. I got more out of my visit to that museum because of that general education course that I was forced to take while an undergraduate student. That’s what I think that undergraduate education, especially general education, is for: it’s an opportunity for you to become a more humane person—something that goes far beyond mere cocktail-party conversations.