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What is General Education For?

By Sean D. Kelly

It used to be that an education in the liberal arts and sciences was devoted primarily to the development of an individual’s character. In some form or another, this was the central idea behind both the classical Greek notion of paideia and the 18th and 19th century German idea of Bildung. Getting a general education, on these models, was a matter of becoming sensitive to the demands of the “good life”—of learning what was admirable to aspire to and of developing the character to pursue such aspirations. Since then, and to our great detriment, we have rejected this model entirely.

In part this rejection is understandable. Whatever the particular vices of the Core Curriculum, it is worth remembering that it was a response, at least in part, to a problem with the more traditional model of general education that had already become clear a generation before. In particular, the traditional model, in its traditional form, is ill-suited to our modern age. That is because it takes for granted agreement about what constitutes the “good life,” and consequently about what a general education program should teach, when such agreement is precisely what contemporary society lacks. Writing in their book, “General Education in a Free Society,” the authors of the 1945 curricular reform at Harvard lamented: “As recently as a century ago no doubt existed about [the] purpose [of general education]: it was to train the Christian citizen…[But] this enviable certainty has largely disappeared.”

Whether such certainty is indeed enviable, as the authors of the so-called Red Book assumed, is itself a deep and important philosophical question. But whatever the answer to that question, we should all agree that the inquiry into the good life, as opposed to the more traditional indoctrination into it, should still be a central aspect of general education. A truly educated person of the modern world, in other words, must be prepared to think seriously about the possibilities for leading a life and ought to be challenged to take a stand on their own way of living. To the extent that our system of general education has lost sight of this goal, it has lost sight of its most fundamental purpose.

The recently published Report of the Task Force on General Education has this idea squarely in view. Its authors wrote, “General education is the place where students are brought to understand how everything that we teach in the arts and sciences relates to their lives and to the world they will confront.” There are various interpretations of this and related sentences in the report, some of which have been used to criticize it as an instrumentalist account of general education. But it seems to me better interpreted as the proposal that general education take place in the context of a broad inquiry about how we ought to live. This idea, I believe, is entirely laudable as a premise for reform.

Without detracting from the difficulty of the General Education Committee’s task, it is easy to imagine how one might go about preparing students for thinking about and aspiring to live a—as opposed to the—good life. We must challenge them to grapple with the various answers to the question of what constitutes a good life, and what constitutes its opposite,that have been handed down to us by our heritage (to use a phrase from the Red Book).

These may include, among many others, the heroic man of many devices that Homer presents to us in the character of Odysseus, the phronimos, or person of practical wisdom, portrayed by Aristotle, the Christ figure as presented in the New Testament or as interpreted by Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Luther, Milton, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoyevsy (to name but a few), the committed friend valorized by Montaigne, the citizen of the Kingdom of Ends described by Kant, the free spirit praised by Nietzsche, and so on. A similarly lengthy list could be compiled of those figures—from Lucifer to Macbeth, from Ivan Karamazov to Citizen Kane—who have suffered the consequences of living what was considered by their most eloquent interpreters to be the opposite of a good life. A careful reading of cases like these will show that, pace Tolstoy and the traditional model that he assumed, it is not only every bad life but every good life too that is remarkable in its own peculiar way. The student who learns to reflect thoughtfully on a wide range of such cases, and who learns to pursue his or her own life in the light of such reflection, will have begun to develop the tools necessary for aspiring to one of the good lives available to us.

It is important too, of course, as many others have pointed out already, that we teach our students enough economics to read the business page, enough science to read the Science Times, and enough sense of irony to be able to get the jokes in the New Yorker. But when we do this we must be sure to keep it in the context of the overall purpose of a general education: to give students the tools for thinking seriously about what they should aspire to in attempting to live the best life possible for them. If we do this we will retain the traditional—and I believe admirable—idea that general education should be devoted primarily to the development of the individual’s character, while dispensing with the traditional—but no longer convincing—assumption that there is a single appropriate way to live.

Sean D. Kelly is Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He teaches Humanities 14, “Existentialism in Literature and Film.” A version of these comments was presented at the FAS Faculty Meeting on December 12, 2006.

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