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  • Curricular Commons
  • Jeremy Cohen

Is There an Animating Principle in the General Education Community?

More than four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei refused an offer to teach and conduct research at the University of Padua. The lure of twice his salary could not compete with the opportunity to abandon the university. Instead, Galileo was seduced by Italy’s equivalent of today’s Washington Beltway think tanks where he would become a courtier with the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In other words, the inventor of modern physics and astronomy would never again—never—have to teach undergraduates. A social contract to engage with undergraduates as well as research? Not yet.

The goals of higher education have changed over the last four centuries, yet Galileo’s echo remains. There continue to be many faculty, administrators, and students who are uncomfortable with the idea that the university grounds we share represent a common space or that as important as research and disciplinary mastery are, higher education includes a social contract in which undergraduate education entails more than research and preparation for graduate study and in which the curricular commons of general education requires more than a simple aggregation of disciplinary introductions.

Cambridge classicist F. M. Cornford wrote a satirical guide for scholars in 1908. The basic rule of faculty governance is, he said, “Nothing should ever be done for the first time.” It has become a cliché that among all the institutions created by people, universities have remained the least open to change.

A half century after Cornford, University of California Chancellor Clark Kerr got it just right. “Few institutions,” he said, “are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs, while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others.” [End Page vii]

“The multiversity is not one community but several,” Kerr added. “The community of the undergraduate and the community of the graduate; the community of the humanist, the community of the social scientist, and the community of the scientist; the communities of the professional schools; the community of all the non-academic personnel; the community of the administrators.” Today, so many liberal arts colleges, state-supported comprehensives, and community colleges have adopted the research/teaching/service ideal of the multiversity that Kerr’s observations apply to nearly all of us, not only in the isolating attention given to disciplinary and research mastery but also in the absence of shared educational values.

“A community, like the medieval communities of masters and students, should have common interests; in the multiversity, they are quite varied, even conflicting,” Kerr said. “A community should have a soul, a single animating principle; the multiversity has several,” he concluded.

The contributors to this issue of the Journal of General Education: A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences have taken a variety of methodological and conceptual approaches to general education as they explore the value of the liberal arts; contemporary challenges to higher education; oversight and assessment; and faculty, student, and staff engagement in the general education community. Their findings are consistent with Kerr’s observations, but they also provide rays of hope and guidance for those who view general education as a curricular commons that carries the possibility of a shared animating principle.

Professor Sandra Richards, who has taught at Stanford, Northwestern, and Cambridge and in Northwestern’s Doha, Qatar international campus, responded to the journal’s invitation to recommend a reading, not for general education students, but for faculty and academic advisers, that would contribute to the development of an animating principle of undergraduate education. “Reading Amitav Ghosh [Sea of Poppies (2008), the first novel in the Ibis trilogy],” Richards says, “has offered me not only a fascinating introduction to the Indian Ocean world, but also an occasion to reflect upon the dynamics of a good classroom in which both instructor and student are called upon to acknowledge their intellectual vulnerability, commit to working with others to produce knowledge, and recognize that our efforts may result in more questions than answers or in disagreements as well as consensus.”

Eric White, executive director emeritus, Division of Undergraduate Studies, and associate dean for advising emeritus at the Pennsylvania State University, has provided a summing up...


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