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Curricular Commons

General Education and the Obligations, Opportunities, and Objectives of Civic and Civil Life

Hakim1 is a trainer in the gym in the Doha high-rise that houses many of us teaching at Northwestern University in Qatar. Young, muscular, a father of three, he returned to Beirut, Lebanon, during Ramadan this year to visit family. On August 15, 2013, he was standing with his six-year-old son on the balcony of his parent’s suburban Beirut apartment when an explosion ignited by Syrian violence across the border found its way into his community and his life.

The detonation killed twenty-seven people. Debris rocketed indiscriminately by the force of the blast struck his son, producing “a gaping hole in his forehead,” Hakim said as he described the moment. Glass would leave six or seven stripe-like scars on Hakim’s own arm below the elbow. Hakim’s six-year-old is recovering.

Two years ago the Arab Spring seemed to be a democratic awakening in which individuals by the thousands seized on what appeared to many to be a personal obligation and a historic opportunity to alter civil and civic life for the better. It is too early to know what the outcome will be.

It is not too early to suggest that among the confluence of religious, cultural, and historic currents carrying young people in the northern African and Middle Eastern region is a desire familiar to many students in the West to nurture the ideals of democracy and human rights. Nor is it too early to recognize that if we accept as a given that a primary function of undergraduate general education is to introduce students to the complexities of democratic community and to the moral obligations generated by a common desire to live in civil society, then a curriculum must do more than talk about the beauty or the potential of rule of law, social justice, or individual freedom. General education curricula, like those [End Page ix] in the sciences, humanities, professions, and social sciences, must be purposeful, pedagogically sound, and effective. It is not obvious from the observations of this issue’s essayists that general education curricula have met these goals.

As the deadline for this volume closed, President Obama, the American Congress, and the American people were debating a question with global implications. How should nations and their citizens respond to the government-sanctioned-and-perpetrated violence in Syria? For those of us who believe that a major component of the antidote to repression and violence lies in education that builds an awareness of the histories and the beliefs of others and of our own communities, general education’s historic recognition of the obligations, opportunities, and objectives of civil and civic life is germane to the events on the ground that so often spiral out of control.

Our winter issue, now in your hands, was planned more than a year before the most recent wave of international violence and is an attempt to narrow in on one of higher education’s most difficult challenges. How can undergraduate education best prepare individuals to develop and sustain the ideals of democracy and human rights? Through a special issue entitled “General Education and the Obligations, Opportunities, and Objectives of Civic and Civil Life,” an ensemble of invited contributors bring their expertise and divergent views to a wicked problem and provide context and suggestions for viable curricular reform.

If there is a common theme in the current issue, it is that individual and inward contemplation, experiential learning beyond the classroom, and empathy are important but by themselves insufficient within a general education curriculum. A general education curriculum should help students to understand events beyond their personal experience. Too often, general education fails to make the vital link between introspection and academic enlightenment.

Seth Pollack at California State University, Monterey Bay, leads off the issue with a clear statement of purpose: “The heart of the problem of a general education is the continuance of the liberal and humane tradition.” Yet, Pollack points out, “traditional approaches to civic engagement have been marginalized and have had little impact on the core curriculum.”

Cynthia Myntti, a scholar at...