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Local and Particular General Education

Guest Post by Jack Baker

I recently led a faculty committee through a three-year process of revising a general education curriculum that had stood mostly untouched for around 30 years.

So when I read John Warner’s consideration of whether or not we place too much emphasize on subject matter over and against pedagogy in general education curriculum, I was reminded of my committee’s experience. His argument is persuasive: we often err in educating students in our own image, shaping them into “academics,” those who “first acquire an incredibly broad range of knowledge within their field and then find a specialty niche within that field.” The consequence of shaping general education students in this way is that we’re teaching them to “produce artifacts which simulate academic forms, but which don’t actually reflect the underlying process which genuine academics engage in.” 

I too have encountered the sudden onrush of existential angst when I have a student from last semester’s writing course show little to no transference of the skills learned in that class to the one I have the student in now.

In my own classes I am increasingly striving to form scholars, not academics—after all, the likelihood is slim (and not particularly attractive) that I’ll ever have a student who wants to study philosophy, medieval studies, historical English languages, and Wendell Berry all while hoping to land a job in academia. We are not called as professors to make students in our own images. 

When we began the revision of our general education curriculum, we quickly encountered the daunting nature of revising the curriculum shared by all of our students (regardless of major). At our institution, the curriculum was sacrosanct. The process was labyrinthine; at times it seemed I was a Borges character following clues to my self-destruction. Navigating turf wars, providing vision, negotiating administrative demands for reducing credit-hour totals to accommodate obscenely large majors—all of these things bore down on me and my colleagues as we combed through the many approaches to general education in search of a plan that fit our institution. 

But a helpful thing happened along the way: I co-authored a book on higher education and place with my friend and fellow committee member Jeff Bilbro. Our work on this book project began to inform our work on the committee. It supplied us with a vision. It brought coherence and order to a tortuous task. But more importantly, it inspired our community to embrace where we were (rural Michigan) and who we were (a small community of learners). Though our campus isn’t flashy, the people here live in a special sort of community—faculty and staff are friends with one another, bring meals to each other, suffer loss together, and imagine goodness together. 

That our university community came to know through these general education revisions is that there is no perfect curriculum; the best a faculty can do for an institution is to craft a scaffolding that is both sturdy enough to support the academic vision of the institution and flexible enough to adapt to the ebb and flow of generational change. To be clear, such a scaffolding excludes neither rigor nor content—it contextualizes them. 

And so our general education committee began to construct a scaffolding that was informed by our university’s mission statement and two primary ways of thinking of liberal education: those elaborated in William Cronon’s essay “Only Connect…: The Goals of Liberal Education” and the principles that Berry models in his writings.

Cronon argues that a liberal education is “not something any of us ever achieve; it is not a state. Rather, it is a way of living in the face of our own ignorance, a way of groping toward wisdom in full recognition of our own folly, a way of educating ourselves without any illusion that our educations will ever be complete.” Warner’s emphasis on pedagogy over subject matter echoes Cronon: general education ought to be about whole-person formation. 

Cronon imagines that a liberally educated person might possess the following attributes:

1. They listen and hear
2. They read and they understand
3. They can talk with anyone
4. They can write clearly and persuasively and movingly
5. They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems
6. They respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth
7. They practice humility, tolerance, self-criticism
8. They understand how to get things done in the world
9. They nurture and empower the people around them
10. They follow E. M. Forster’s injunction from Howards End: “Only connect”

For Cronon, a liberal education is not simply for the individual because not a one of us lives in isolation—we are members of our biological and ecological communities: “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. Every one of the qualities I have described here—listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes, leading, working in a community—is finally about connecting. A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.”

One of the ways we might encourage students to make such connections would be to help them think about the university as a particular place. Berry proposes a curriculum of questions that will, like Cronon’s list of attributes, habituate students to become (in Warner’s terms) scholars, not academics, preparing them for lives beyond the university:

1. What has happened here? By “here” I mean wherever you live and work.
2. What should have happened here?
3. What is here now? What is left of the original natural endowment? What has been lost? What has been added?
4. What is the nature, or genius, of this place?
5. What will nature permit us to do here without permanent damage or loss?
6. What will nature help us to do here?
7. What can we do to mend the damages we have done?
8. What are the limits: Of the nature of this place? Of our intelligence and ability?1 

I think we’re spinning our wheels when we argue for a general education curricula divorced from particular institutions. A land-grant institution in Indiana ought to have different curricular goals than a four-year liberal arts institution in Oregon. There is no one-size-fits-all curriculum because each university is in a particular place with a particular history and populated by particular people.  

And while I do believe there are foundational literacy and numeracy skills necessary to engage in complex intellectual work, they alone will not hold together the scaffolding. I wonder, then, what an approach to rethinking general education might look like if it were local and particular? What if institutions crafted a scaffolding that was both sturdy and flexible, one that sought to form our students into scholars? I think Cronon and Berry’s lists are as good a place as any to start such thinking.


Jack Baker was born and raised in Shelby, a small farming community in Western Michigan. He’s an author, professor, and amateur writing shed builder who has published on a Latin charm against thieves in an early Robin Hood MS, Malory’s Lancelot, and why universities need gardens. He’s co-written a book titled Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place (University Press of Kentucky, 2017, featured at The Chronicle of Higher Education) and co-edited two essay collections: Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William and The Saint John’s Bible and Its Tradition (forthcoming, 2018).

1 Berry, “Major in Homecoming: For Commencement, Northern Kentucky University.” In What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2010,” 34–35.

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