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The University II: What Is a Liberal Education?

The Reforming of General Education

by Daniel Bell
Columbia, 320 pp., $7.50

A primary measure of the condition of our universities at the present time is the increasing uncertainty among its leaders, even after several decades, about the success, or even the aims, of general education. Of course there are technical reasons, as Professor Daniel Bell explains in his book, The Reforming of General Education, why it has been increasingly difficult in an age of competitive specialization and spreading bureaucracy to staff general education courses with first-rate teachers. The blunt question is: who wants to teach general education? Nor have cleverer students, dazzled by the professional and material opportunities open to students who distinguish themselves in their major subjects, been quick to acknowledge the virtues of courses that lead nowhere and anywhere, and do not seem quite serious or respectable because they are non-professional. But apart from all “technical” problems, profound ambiguities in the leading aspirations of general education have, from the beginning, made it difficult to decide what standards are appropriate in judging the success or failure of general education.

In part, as I suggested in the first part of this essay, the aim of general education in the university has been to preserve at least some of the values traditionally ascribed to liberal education. But there are other, often extraneous, reasons both for the rise of the general educational movement and for the forms it has taken. As Professor Bell emphasizes in his account of the “original assumptions” of the movement, “…general education at Columbia was the result of a curious mixture of parochial, sociopolitical, and philosophical motives.” What was true at Columbia, where many of the early experiments in general education occurred, was true elsewhere. At Columbia John Erskine’s famous General Honors course, which proposed to read and discuss one classic a week, became the prototype of humanities courses later given on a hundred campuses. Its quasi-humanistic aim was (as the anthropologists say) to “enculturate” students who had not hitherto been exposed to “the great tradition.” On the other side, the course which at Columbia was later called “Contemporary Civilization” had as its progenitor two courses, one in “War Issues” and the other in “Peace Issues,” that were introduced during the First World War by socially and politically oriented members of the philosophy and history departments. Courses of this type, now usually taught under the auspices of social scientists, were, as Bell says, “an open and frank acknowledgement of the direct responsibility of…[the colleges] to the stated democratic needs of society.”

MORE SURPRISINGLY, the “humanistic” great books course also had a predominantly social and political bias, although in contrast to the embryonic “C. C.” course it presented, according to Lionel Trilling (to whom Bell dedicates his book), “a fundamental criticism of American democratic education” and, presumably, society. This social and political emphasis persisted as the general education movement spread, first to Chicago and, after the Second World War, to Harvard. Bell fancies, however, that both sides of the dialectic were strenuously presented only on Morningside Heights. At Chicago the prevailing Aristotelianism and Thomism imparted to general education “the flavor of an aristocratic critique of the democratic,” whereas Harvard’s program (at least as set out in its over-rated “Red Book,” General Education in a Free Society) was a response to the obligation, assumed in the name of democracy, to provide young citizens with “some common and binding understanding of the society which they will possess in common.” Perhaps there are grains of truth in all this, although to someone like myself who has taught courses in general education both at Columbia and at Harvard, it seems a vast over-simplification of reality. For one thing, even when conceived in political terms, the attitudes conveyed through courses in “the classics” are both more various and more complex than Bell suggests; more important, their concern is frequently with quite different dimensions of individual or collective life. More important still, the primary interest in the many general education courses in the humanities, including the one at Columbia, is not, at least in my experience, “ideological” at all (the term is Bell’s, but it is employed in this book in a common non-pejorative sense quite at variance with his writings on “the end of ideology”). If official theories of general education are too often full of crass ideological directives, many teachers in the humanities happily ignore them. What concerns them are the durable intrinsic interests of literature and philosophy themselves: with their power, that is, to delight the spirit, to enliven the imagination, to refine and clarify discourse, and to bring to the whole mind a fuller sense of its inventiveness, singularity, and freedom.

BELL’S DETAILED ACCOUNT of the development of general education at Columbia, Chicago, and Harvard is inevitably flattened out in his recapitulations of the “original assumptions” which he ascribes to all three programs. He is aware, moreover, that there has always been a discrepancy between the statements of those who formulate educational programs and the practice of those who teach in them. Nevertheless, Bell’s recapitulation remains a useful point of departure for discussions of prevailing tendencies. In the case of a historian who is also a reformer, such a summary of working principles also sets in relief what he regards as of abiding importance. And for a reformer who is in no sense a revolutionary, it provides a useful context for his own limited proposals for change.

The first two of the four traditional assumptions which Bell ascribes to general education have objectives that lie well beyond the customary round of scholarly activities. The leading assumption, which he identifies as “ideological,” is that university students should not only be made aware of the unifying needs and common practices of American society but also that they should be instilled with “a sense of common tasks, though not necessarily a single purpose.” Here, says Bell, the operative term is “consensus,” a word which, he carefully tells us, was in use at Chicago long before it became a hallmark of the Johnson administration. But for general educators also, be it noted, the concern is with a national consensus; nor, in spite of the reference to unifying needs and common practices and tasks, are any specific limiting terms placed upon it.

Does this mean that, in Bell’s view, exponents of nationalist ideological consensualism in general education have been prepared to instill in their students a respect for the prevailing versions of American ideals, regardless of their content? Some part of the answer to this question may be implicit in Bell’s account of the second extra-mural assumption of the General Education Movement which he lists simply under the heading of “Tradition.” This assumption, whatever else may be said for or against it, plainly contravenes the blank-check consensualist ideology which is all too prevalent in our day. What “the tradition” has represented is an effort to provide students with a better grasp of the history of the wider Western civilization and culture of which our own remains a variant. But the concern of general education with that history is by no means the historian’s professional interest in it. On the contrary, its highly selective aims, as Bell describes them, are to develop the student’s sense of “recurrent moral and political problems of men in society,” and more particularly to chart for him “the travails of the idea of freedom” and to “instill” in him the idea of “civility.”

Bell curiously neglects to remark here that such a use of “history” and “the tradition” is itself largely ideological. But how well do the ideas of “liberty” and “civility,” so recurrently emphasized in “G. E.” courses, apply to many other “ideological” aspects of the tradition? Consider for example the pervasive nationalism and scientism which, since Plato, have dominated our academic ideas of learning and knowledge. Indeed, how deeply reflected are these very attitudes in the preoccupation with general ideas of liberty and civility. And consider the counter-traditions of fideism and anti-rationalism represented by such writers as Augustine and Luther, by Rousseau and (on one side) Hume, by Dostoievsky, Nietzsche, William James, and the existentialists. In many general education courses, I believe, it has been the developing dialectic between the attitudes or ideas represented in these traditions which for many students has proved the truly instructive and civilizing thing. Again, consider the revolutionary ideals inscribed in the terms “fraternity” and “equality,” and in the troubled aspirations commonly ranged under the head of “romanticism,” specifically the passionate yearning for all that lies beyond city life, the whole “mighty being” of Wordsworth, and behind it the idea of nature variously associated with such names as Goethe, Rousseau, Spinoza, the Stoics, and Ecclesiastes. Such phases of human culture, admittedly ambiguous and blurred, are deeply veined through the whole Western tradition. They are also represented in the syllabuses of general education courses everywhere. Nor are they treated by all exponents of the tradition as merely a dark underside, covered with festering sores of rebelliousness, primitiveness, incivility, and mysticism, to be understood by wellgroomed students in the way that certain liberals have always understood their critics. Many teachers of general education believe, I think rightly, that such concerns and affections are irremovable aspects of the dialectic of human existence which, as such, are deeply reflected in our tradition as they must be in any tradition, or ideology, capable or worthy of survival.

BUT OF COURSE the main virtue of “the tradition” for many of us has always belonged to another level of educational interest: that is, its immense virtue as a repository, not just of “ideas,” “ideals,” and “commitments,” ethical, political, or otherwise, but also of artistic, literary, and religious, as well as philosophical and scientific, achievements—actualizations and consummations of the mind’s powers of creation and invention—which are perennially absorbing on their own account to any teacher or student worth his salt.

But this is not all. Professor Bell is aware of the difference between understanding the idea of liberty and an actually liberated person. And elsewhere in his book he remarks upon the substantive liberating effect of studies in which an attempt is made to raise the student’s interest from the particular theory at hand to more general conceptual or methodological issues. Yet in this crucial résumé of the common assumptions of general education, it is only the ideas of liberty and civility and the recurrent ethical and political idea of “man in society” which come to his mind.

From a moral point of view, the virtue of the entire tradition of liberal education has been in the liberation of the mind and soul of the student himself. In fact, one’s whole feeling about Bell’s summary would change if the concern for consensus and for ideology were put (where teachers, confident of their own vocation and of the inherent dignity of liberal education, instinctively put it) in its natural and legitimate second or third place, and if first place were reserved for the actual development of free and civil beings, capable of making up their own minds about the value of national societies, ideas of liberty and civility, and the rest. What interests us in the case of Socrates are not just his highly ironical discussions of the golden ideas, but a personal embodiment of them, which, through Plato’s art, takes possession of us as it took possession of Plato himself. Again, from the standpoint of extractable doctrines of civility and freedom, Montaigne offers us even less than Socrates. Nor does this matter. What Montaigne presents to us, through his continually shifting discourses with himself, is not an idea of civility but a highly civil mind struggling toward its own true freedom. When all has been said and done, what “we” hope for, what makes our impossible task one worthy of Virgil himself, is that when we withdraw, what will bid us farewell is not just a scholar or idea man, but the semblance of a free human being. Is this not the one commencement in which we have a deep wish to take part? And after all, is this not the true reason why we have refused to turn general and liberal education over to the secondary schools so that the institutes for advanced study can provide faster, more efficient, drier runs for future careerists and service men—men, that is to say, all too like ourselves?

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