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  • The Liberal Arts Endeavor
  • Christopher P. Long

A New General Education

In 1869 the Atlantic Monthly published an essay by Charles Eliot entitled "The New Education." In it, he sought to chart a new course for education in the United States in the wake of the Civil War and the industrialization that was reshaping the lives of citizens and the world in which they lived. Eliot's essay praises the reforms that had been adopted in 1862 by the Yale Scientific School, which, in addition to establishing a postgraduate Doctor of Philosophy degree, had introduced a "general course of studies" that embraced a broad liberal arts curriculum from mathematics to literature and from the physical sciences to history and commercial law. Eliot emphasized that to this general course of study, there was added "a large elective element in the last two years," which had a "distinctly practical or professional turn."1 These visionary reforms aligned the emerging curriculum at Yale with the ideals set forth in the Morrill Act of 1862, which explicitly sought to "promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."2

Soon after the publication of "The New Education" essay, and largely because of the vision it articulated, Eliot was named the twenty-first, and at thirty-five years old, the youngest, president of Harvard University. During his forty-year tenure at Harvard, Eliot shaped much of what we have inherited as the American system of higher education. From the articulation of majors and minors to a curriculum regulated by student credit hours, from the establishment of highly specialized graduate programs to the adoption of general education undergraduate programs rooted in the liberal arts, Eliot's reforms have had a lasting effect.3 In 1909, Eugen Kuehnemann celebrated Eliot's legacy by calling the standard he set the "embodiment of the American conception of education." Kuehnemann went on to clarify the contours of this American education this [End Page v] way: "It enthroned ideal in the place of utilitarian considerations, it aimed at seriousness and depth of genuine education independently won instead of the hurried acquisition of mere practical accomplishments. All of this was attained by just one decisive move: the introduction of the spirit of true education, the spirit of liberty and independence, in place of traditional routine."4 Although it idolizes a free and independent subject, degrades the value of tradition, and segregates ideals too rigidly from the practices in which they must be embodied, nevertheless this passage suggests the extent to which the "arts of liberty" have long animated the spirit of American education.5

In her book The New Education, Cathy Davidson articulates the enlivening and limiting dimensions of the legacy Eliot has handed down to us as we discern how best to create an education for the digital age. What industrialization was for Eliot and his generation, the Internet is for Davidson and ours. She captures the signature of the Internet's impact this way: "Overnight, anyone with access to an Internet connection could communicate anything to anyone else in the world who had access to an Internet connection. This is an almost unimaginable extension of the human reach."6 Although our reach, as Robert Browning reminds us, should always exceed our grasp,7 the excesses of a global network of communication have reshaped the world; transformed the dynamics of our social, political, and economic interactions; and placed urgent demands on us as educators. As Davidson suggests, educators "must take responsibility and begin to think seriously about how to remake the university to equip students to thrive in this murky and often polluted new atmosphere that we now all breathe."8 In remaking the university, Davidson advocates for a student-centered active-learning approach that empowers students to advance knowledge within the rich contexts in which they find themselves, drawing upon the expertise they have cultivated in the information-rich world they inhabit.9 The virtues of a liberal arts education gain in urgency in the wake of the creation of the Internet, as students attempt to chart meaningful lives in a world in which information is widely accessible but its significance...


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