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…

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