The University:
Who are these people and why are they messing with my mind?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Great Thinkers Comment on the University Experience


In the beginning there was LES (Liberal Education Seminar) and lo, LES begat USP (University Seminar Program) and USP begat AUR (All-University Requirements) and AUR begat General Education and Writing Emphasis and Other-Culture. And the wrath of the students was kindled against Senior Seminar, for they could not get in.

I arrived here in 1976 in the waning days of the LES program, and I have seen our general education programs evolve and mutate strangely, and I sat on, even chaired, the General Education Council. Finally, it occurred to me that you might go through four or more years here without anyone explaining to you why we set the requirements the way we do. (It only took about fifteen years for me to figure this out - the Ph in Ph.D. doesn't stand for phast!) So that's what I will try to do here.


Why General Education?

First, let's look at an example of what General Education is not.

I am the very model of a modern Major-General
I've information vegetable, animal and mineral
I know the kings of England and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical
I'm very well acquainted too with matters mathematical
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot of news
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse
............
I'm very good at integral and differential calculus
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous
In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral
I am the very model of a modern Major-General
.............
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform
And tell you every detail of Caractacus's uniform
In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral
I am the very model of a modern Major-General

[But.....]

When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy....

For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century
But still in matters vegetable, animal and mineral
I am the very model of a modern Major-General

-----Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance

Give the General his due; he knows mathematics, history, languages and science. He just can't put any of it together or apply it. He collects facts like a pack rat collects tinfoil. As for his specialty, he's woefully uninformed. This is not what General Education is trying to do.


The Purposes of General Education

The roots of university curricula go back through the Middle Ages to about 400 A.D. The Roman Empire was coming unglued, and a Roman proconsul named Martianus Capella confronted the problem of how to cope. With central authority becoming fragmented and invaders sweeping in, there was every likelihood that a person might find himself carried off into captivity a thousand miles from home among people who spoke a completely different language. What did you need to know to survive in such a wildly uncertain world? Capella's answer: everything, or at least as close as you could come to it. Capella's answer is not all that bad in today's uncertain world because a lot of the purposes of General Education haven't changed:

One Final Reason For General Education

Protesting the Beijing Olympics, 2008

Thanks to the Internet, we all live in a goldfish bowl.

General Education can prevent you from looking like a complete idiot in front of the whole world.

If you don't know what's wrong with the sign, take some history classes.


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Created 30 Dec 1996; Last Update 04 December 2009

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