I was at a party last Friday and the woman who has an office across the hall from me asked why I’d move to Hong Kong.
“I have a Fulbright, in general education.”
She looked at me blankly.
“It’s a scholarship,” I said. “From the American government.”
She rolled her eyes and took a sip from her wine glass. “Yes, I know what a Fulbright is. But what the hell is general education?”
It’s a good question actually, but not one I’m inclined to answer here because, A) it’s too boring, and B) it really is boring.
That said, my conversation with Nicola was anything but. After I sputtered a bit, trying to answer her question, she said, “So it’s foundational courses.”
“No,” I said. “There’s nothing foundational about an English major taking a biology course.”
“So then it’s breadth?”
“Lots of people say that,” I responded, “but it sort of begs the question, why is breadth so important?”
“Because it’s interesting,” she said, “to know about the French Revolution. It’s interesting to know there was something called the Opium Wars, and what caused them and how they ended. It’s interesting to know about—“ and then she named some Australian uprising that I’d never heard of.
“Maybe to you it is,” I said.
She gave me a look. I opened my mouth; if I was going to get a drink hurled in my face, I would at least swallow some.
“I mean seriously,” I continued when her glare faded. “Who gives a crap about breadth? Lots of engineers live perfectly happy lives never having read a poem. Lots of historians are content and don’t know squat about engineering. Why does breadth matter?”
“Okay,” she said. “If it’s not foundational, and it’s not breadth, then what is it?”
I looked at her. She looked straight back in that candid way Aussie’s have. I had uprooted my family, dragged them to the other side of the planet, put my life as a male supermodel on hold, and was getting paid an obscenely average amount of money to answer just that question. So I said what any professional would say in such a situation:
“Where’s the wine?”
I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but here’s the general history of general education:
Two thousand years ago, in the time of Charles Dickens, there were these rich people called aristocrats. Not only were they rich and extremely inbred, they had a lot of time on their hands that they wanted to use for things besides courting their sisters, kissing their sisters, and generally making sure their children had cloven hooves where their noses should be. One day a bunch of them were sitting around trying to figure out how they could all be both second cousins to themselves and their own uncles, when they decided that the best way to spend their extra time was to gather all the expanse of knowledge—art, science, literature, the recipe for cinnamon scones, and the first half of the Kama Sutra—and stuff it into their pointy little mushy skulls. The rationale behind this was, on the face of it, that learning such things was good for oneself, moving one toward self-fulfillment. In matter of fact, of course, the whole point of learning a ton of useless information was to be able to feel superior to people who didn’t have the time to learn anything at all because they were too busy scraping dead cat off the omnibus crossing just to survive.
Eventually, most of the aristocrats were killed off by their incessant need to bonk their own aunties. Those few who were left behind met an even more horrible fate at the hands of Mr. Rogers and his pack of extraterrestrial blood donkeys, but that’s a matter for another post. What really happened, of course, is that the aristocrats with their old money were eventually overtaken by the merchant- and rising-middle class with their new money. Now, because old money is inherited and split up among siblings (who also happen to be grandpa and grandson) and new money is earned and can continue to be earned even after being divided, soon the new money was in the ascendant position, which is a polite way of saying that a bunch of bozos who’d spent their whole lives grubbing for cash and didn’t know Bach from a tropical disease that swells your testicles, suddenly found themselves in massive mansions with a lot of time on their hands. The consequence of all of this—and remember, I’m making most of it up while drinking my third glass of wine since breakfast—is that eventually the rationale for the rich became the rationale for the middle class. Or, to put it another way, this preposterous idea that the only way to actualize yourself as a human being was to study drawing and Newtonian physics made it’s way into the mindset of the population as a whole. Never mind that all around the world there were people of every race and every culture who had attained near sainthood with their goodness and thoughtfulness and down-home how-to-fix-a-tractor-with-chewing-gum-and –a-slick -of -hair grease: if you didn’t go to University and study the Periodic Table and poems by T.S. Eliot (who knew a thing or two about hair grease), then you were a Loser, with a capital LOSE.
Now for the record, there is a part of me that understands this idea perfectly. I regularly teach chemistry and sociology and business majors who come into my classroom not so much not caring about literature and art, as hating it so much that they would rather floss with asbestos than read a poem. And to be frank, my goal in a class like that is get the students—even the ones I don’t like (you know who you are, you little egg-throwing bastards)—to find something—a poem, or a painting, or a song by Captain and Tennille—that they like. William Carlos Williams once said that he thought a poem could actually save a person’s life, and he played a doctor on TV, so he should know. And I—to string together a wonderfully Palinesque flow of ideas—entirely agree with Williams about the eagles and the beavers and the palimony and all that and you betcha!
Where were we?
Oh, I remember: I do think that reading poetry and knowing history and being able to walk into a museum and find a painting you like—that these things do make our lives richer. And, similarly, I think that when a person in the humanities truly engages the study of chemistry or statistics or political science, they find something there—some metaphor for understanding the world, perhaps, or some idea that strips away their old approach to life—that makes their lives richer.
But I don’t think that’s enough to justify a curricular approach that requires students to take a check-list of classes, usually containing two from every discipline and something painful and involving typing papers late at night.
For years, though, that was the approach. And for years students sat in their two sections of lab science and one section of math, or two sections of math and one section of lab science; in their two social science courses, sometimes including history, sometimes not; in their two humanities and arts classes, sometimes including history, sometimes not (I mean, make up your bleedin’ minds, you guys!); in their two foreign languages and their two P.E. sections—for years students sat in these classes, dutifully taking notes, or dutifully taking naps, or dutifully daydreaming about Mary Kay Thompson’s lips of honey, and learned jack-all, except maybe how to look interested when inside you were mentally ripping your own intestines into a usable length of rope with which to hang yourself.
Oh sure, on occasion someone got sparked. Quite often, even. Every once in a while a student would encounter a field they’d never considered and realize it was what they were meant to do. Every once in a while, there’d be an instructor who was engaged and who cared and who had enough charisma to spark student interest in powerful and lasting ways. My professor colleagues like to tell me about how they just loved their classes in anthropology or Latin or history pre-Crimean war Russian peasantry. Yes, I say back, but let’s face it: you’re a dweeb. Most of our students aren’t like you, and thank god for that.
In recent years, though, general education has started to take something of a turn—so much so, in fact, that it’s quite often not even called general education anymore. And about time, too, because who the hell gets excited about generalities?
Replacing this idea is the phrase “liberal learning” or “liberal education.” At the heart of this language is not a preference for Al Franken, but rather the idea of liberation, the belief that education should provide students with the ability to make informed and thoughtful decisions, even in situations where they are encountering entirely new ideas or ideas that don’t fit with their previous vision of the world.
Let me explain what this means: I was at a workshop recently where a department chair was railing against the administration, referring to them as “line managers,” as in “We’re down here doing all the work on the line, and they’re up there making all the decisions and telling us what to do.” His phrasing, self-indulgent and self-pitying though it was, evoked a two-tiered world of management and peons, wherein management had all the agency and made all the decisions, and the line workers were powerless, mere puppets, or cogs in someone else’s machine (or to mix my metaphors, cog puppets. And we all know how sexy those are).
In reality, of course, cogs or puppets are exactly what some portions of the business and employment world want: give us someone who will shut up and do exactly what we want them to do. Give us your dull, your gray, your easily led and perfectly mediocre, for they are easier to lay off and withhold benefits from and treat like doormats and . . . well, you can see why I didn’t enter corporate America.
A lot of companies though—and agencies, and academic institutions, and other places that hire freshly minted BAs and BSs—are looking for people who will challenge institutional staleness, who can, to engage that over-used phrase, think outside the box.
Liberal learning seeks to create just those kinds of people. Or, to put it another way, liberal learning seeks to create not line managers or line workers, but people who will step into that two-tiered system and point out that, not only does it no longer work, here’s a better way.
Why is such a citizenry necessary? (Can you hear the gathering my rhetorical steam here? Can you see my clenched jaw, my finger in the air? Can you hear my voice becoming more strident? My actual jowls are jiggling with fatty indignation!) Two reasons:
First, the world is a rapidly changing place. What a student learns her first-year will likely be out of date when she sits at her desk the first day of her career. Consider this: most textbooks are 3-5 years out of date the day they first come out. In such a world, we need to prepare students for the unexpected. As one of my colleagues back in the States recently pointed out, there are no scheduled tests in life. Life is the test.
Second, consider that in 2002 and 2003, the government of the US voted to invade a country that had never attacked the US, that had nothing to do with 9/11, that had no weapons of mass destruction, and that had barely the military might to change a tire, much less engage in a world-wide terrorist battle against the west. The government voted this way because individual congressmen and women—from both parties—were too scared to stand up and say what everyone knew was true: that the White House’s reasons and rhetoric for going to war were seriously flawed. The politicians knew this to be true. The press knew this to be true. Even portions of the general population knew this to be true. Yet we went to war. And lots of people—Americans and Iraqis alike—died.
Now I’m not saying that changing the way general education is designed and taught—its rationale, its pedagogies—would necessarily have led to a different outcome. But I am saying this: when people ask how the average German citizen went along as the Nazis attempted to eradicate the world’s Jews during WWII, you need look no further than the buildup to the second gulf war and a population and a press and a political system where people were not thinking for themselves.
None of which I could articulate to Nicola over cocktail wieners and luke-warm Chardonnay (nothing in Hong Kong is every truly cold). My guess is I either needed more wieners or less Chardonnay, but it’s entirely possible it’s the other way around. Next time there’s a party though—and there seems to be one here every other week, God bless the Aussies—I’ll be ready with an answer:
As much as is possible, General Education should be the learning you do that keeps you—especially in situations where you’re encountering something new, or feeling fear, or getting pressured from someone else—from acting like a stupid idiot.