Opinion: In defense of a truly general education

A colleague at the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, Professor Richard McGowan, recently wrote a column bemoaning the lack of required philosophy courses in today’s college curricula. Perhaps lamenting is a better verb due to its classical connotation.

McGowan reviewed the general education requirements at Indiana’s major universities and found them lacking. Perhaps they are explanatory as to our inability to carry on an intelligent conversation for more than 30 seconds without resorting to epithets.

First, a word about what colleges call general education. This had its roots in the sixties and seventies as colleges reduced degree requirements almost to the point of irrelevancy. It was the protest era, after all, and we undergraduates thought we already knew everything important. Why study dead languages, dead philosophers, dead poets, etc., when our parents’ generation needed instruction from us?

This was followed in short order by a careerist focus within higher education, with professional degrees predominating. There were fewer and fewer slots in these program requirements for outside courses. Getting graduates placed in good jobs was paramount, certainly in the minds of these graduates and, at the more exclusive colleges, in the minds of their parents. After all, they just spent tens or hundreds of thousands to guarantee that result.

This is my somewhat jaundiced view of higher education, having spent a career on the administrative side of it. Since I had no input into curricular decisions as an administrator, I could wash my hands of this mess, Pontius Pilate style, except for the unpleasant truth that I was cheering it on when I was a student.

Enter general education, “gen ed” as we called it. This was a well-intentioned effort to restore the foundation of a college education by requiring courses across a multitude of disciplines outside one’s major. It wasn’t exactly a return to a liberal education but it moved closer to it.

It didn’t quite work out as intended, as McGowan points out. Entrepreneurial academic departments, being driven by the need to increase enrollments in their courses to maintain funding, quickly discerned that these disinterested students needed to be attracted with sexy course names. Department chairmen were only responding predictably to the incentives presented to them. No free-market economist could fault them for that.

In spite of my best efforts to avoid any and all gen ed courses, I still ended up with a reasonably broad liberal education. Truth be told, this was partially due to my changing majors nearly every semester. Still, I found that philosophy courses were actually interesting. I ended up with an unofficial minor in philosophy, unofficial because of all the changes of major I foisted on my long-suffering academic advisor.

In addition to the obligatory survey course offered to freshmen, I took courses in ethics, political theory and logic. The ethics course was interesting, with every student other than me buying into situational ethics. That course reinforced my belief in universal truth and morality which can’t be modified to meet the mob’s current demands. Based on what is going on today, I feel justified in my undergraduate insight into this. Sadly, it may have been the only time I showed any common sense in those days.

Even though I have forgotten nearly everything I learned back then, I still remember enough to grab an old textbook or go to Wikipedia to research a current question. For example I recently called on my symbolic logic course to help me work through a difficult theological question which had perplexed me for some time. I still don’t understand it fully, but I feel comfortable with the point of comprehension reached.

This love of deep thinking about things has stayed with me ever since. Fortunately, I have found several releases for my reflective instincts. One is my involvement with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Another is the proximity of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne.

The seminary granted me guest auditor status which allows me to attend classes with the professor’s approval. I am currently enrolled in a graduate class on St. Augustine, one of my favorite philosophers and theologians. The other students are all fourth-year seminarians, about to be granted M. Div. degrees and sent out on their first pastoral assignments. Another student is in a Ph. D. program.

Even though I am not required to write the assigned papers, I have attempted to do so. The professor has granted me dispensation to diverge from the prompts because I don’t have four years of theological education like my classmates. I had to admit that I don’t know the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics, an expectation for the first paper. No matter; I wrote the paper anyway.

The class has been thoroughly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating thanks to all those philosophy courses I took as an undergraduate. Richard McGowan is correct; our current young people are being cheated out of the best of western civilization. And America is poorer for it.