The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017)

Whatever Happened to General Education?

Chad Wellmon

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 1)

Finance, football, and fraternities—not philosophy or physics—are the pillars of the modern American university. It’s been that way for more than a century: In On the Higher Learning in America (1918)—published fewer than forty years after the founding of Johns Hopkins, America’s first research university—Thorstein Veblen, the early-twentieth-century American sociologist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” dismissed American universities as little more than “competitive businesses.” In Plato’s “classic scheme of folly,” he wrote, long before preening professors decried the corporatization of universities, America’s burgeoning institutions of higher education had turned the ancient Greek’s scheme on its head. Businessmen had overtaken universities and were managing the “pursuit of knowledge.”1 An early reviewer of On the Higher Learning, writing in the New York Times, warned readers that the book was a “gas attack” on a sacred institution.2 And, almost a century later, in the fall of 2014, Veblen’s rambling but idealistic tirade brought one of my students to tears.

I had started class that day by asking my students whether Veblen’s description of early- twentieth-century American universities resonated with their experiences at the University of Virginia. A young woman in the front row sitting ready with pen and notebook immediately replied, “Yes!” We read Plato and Aristotle on ethics, Fichte and Humboldt on universities, and Jefferson on democracy, she continued. But every one of us knows what happens in the fraternities on Rugby Road, every one of us knows how women are treated across campus, every one of us knows that what we do in class has nothing to do with the world outside class. Yet UVA continues to tell us how it forms Jeffersonian leaders who will change the world for good. It’s all a lie, she said.

She and almost all of her classmates, from self-identified fraternity brothers to campus activists, thought Veblen could just as well be describing the University of Virginia in 2014. The “accessories” of college life—fraternities, football, and the panoply of student activities—as he put it, “are held to be indispensable, not for scholarly or curricular reasons but chiefly to encourage the attendance and life-long financial support of the decorative contingent who take more kindly to sports, invidious intrigue and social amenities than to scholarly pursuits.” School spirit was a business imperative.

Two days after reading Veblen with my class, I led the first meeting of a group of faculty that had been tasked, in our dean’s words, with “reimagining undergraduate education at a public university for the twenty-first century.” Despite its bureaucratic name and, given the nature of academic politics, “The Committee for the Reform of General Education” prompted a two-year argument about the ends of education and the character of our community. The experience was brutal but inspiring.

In that first meeting, my colleagues and I from the School of Arts and Sciences quickly came to the same conclusion as my class. Our students shared less a curricular life than an extracurricular one. What bound them together was not their classroom experiences, their chemistry labs, or the books they read, but, rather, the clubs they led, the basketball games they worshipfully attended, and the parties for which they diligently planned. Veblen’s description held true. Our university was a divided institution in service of little more than success—or in UVA’s perverse reformulation of Aristotlian eudaimonia (human flourishing) “the endless pursuit of better.” And the consequences were extensive and grave.

But my colleagues and I quickly acknowledged that we, the faculty, were just as complicit. We had been trained to write articles, run labs, and speak with our disciplinary colleagues around the world. But we had not been trained to talk with our students about their moral lives, about the relationship between what they learned and how they lived, or about the aims and purposes of education. In fact, most of us had been trained to be skeptical, if not suspicious, of such morally frank discussion. Were questions about the purposes, ends, and ethical shape of education legitimate areas of concern for historians, biologists, chemists, or philosophers?

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  1. Thorstein Veblen, On the Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, ed. Richard Teichgraeber III (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 88.
  2. Brander Matthews, “Mr. Veblen’s Gas Attack on Our Colleges and Universities,” New York Times Book Review and Magazine, March 19, 1919, 125, 137, 138.

Chad Wellmon is an associate professor of German studies at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is the author of Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University (2015) and coeditor of The Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook (2017).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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