Gen Ed on My Mind

AGLS will invite a series of association officers, members and guests to write short essays on current general education issues and matters of the day. Our aim is to have a new essay every 6 weeks. Past essays will be archived online for a year, then in association offices. Have something on your mind? Contact us at execdir@agls.org to find out how to share your ponderings.

The More Things Change...

Joyce Lucke - Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A big box arrived at my office last summer. It was from AGLS Past President Larry Kaptain, and it was full of back issues of Perspectives, the former journal of the AGLS. The oldest one inside dated to the summer of 1987, and that’s the one that most intrigued me because I graduated from college that summer. Wondering what the issues were in general and liberal studies at that time, when I had just joined the ranks of “liberally educated people,” I opened the volume eagerly.

The full conference schedule for AGLS greeted my eyes, and a couple of familiar themes leaped off the pages. Several sessions pointed to a raging debate: should we be teaching the western tradition or non-western, multicultural content? Another set of sessions argued for a feminist approach to liberal education, for transcending racial boundaries, and for the role of general and liberal studies at HBCUs. A third group of sessions explored the way Gen Ed programs were preparing students for the 1980s workforce: one was based on interviews with alumni, for example, while another concentrated on the experiences of non-traditional students, and another addressed the question, what can one do with a humanities degree? There was even one lonely session on assessment.

On the surface, it may seem like we haven't advanced very much from the 1980s. We have old wine in new bottles, perhaps. As a historian, I thought of George Santayana’s famous 1905 aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Is that the case for us in general and liberal studies—or in higher education, broadly? Have we forgotten some important lesson?

The first essay in the volume offered me an answer. Titled, “Liberal Arts, Teaching and Critical Literacy: Toward a Definition of Schooling as a Form of Cultural Politics,” the AGLS published it in advance of the conference so all could read it and discuss at a plenary. The author, Henry Giroux, is now hailed as one of the top educational thinkers in the modern world, a John Dewey for our time, and I can't do justice to the entire essay here. For my purposes, suffice it to say, he noted that the meaning of any education has to be made and remade for each generation, over and over. I was reminded of a colleague’s frequent and wry observation that we faculty get older, while our students remain perpetually aged 18-22. We have to remember that: no matter how much WE grow in experience and wisdom, THEY are pretty much always inexperienced, naive, and young.

So it would be easy to look at that 1987 conference and the debates and challenges it reflected and throw in the towel, to say well, we've tried before, we can't do it. But I’m not at all cynical about the similarities between then and now. I wasn't even that shocked, in fact. From 1987 to 2014 is only 27 years. It’s not long at all if you study the human past. It’s barely a blip. We all know that important changes sometimes happen slowly, over decades or centuries.

In fact, significant changes have happened in general and liberal studies since 1987. The 54th Annual AGLS conference in Atlanta featured sessions on the globalization or internationalization of curricula, for example, a much more sophisticated concern than the old western vs. non-western debate. Similarly, topics about diversity, inclusivity, and privilege have broadened and deepened older discussions about race, gender, and class. Meanwhile, questions about non-traditional students have given way to access, swirling, degree completion, and high impact practices. True, we still worry about preparing students for the workplace, but I have to think that's largely because the workplace has also changed. As Terrel Rhodes of the AAC&U showed us in his fine keynote presentation, the average American with a bachelor’s degree is expected to hold 10-14 different jobs by time she reaches 40.

My point is, don't feel discouraged if the pace of progress feels slow or if it seems like Groundhog Day, especially if you have been doing general and liberal studies “work” for a long time. I haven't been doing it all that long, myself. I only crossed over to the dark side of administration ten years ago. But I have been living and breathing general education every day since then. To the class of 2018, by contrast, the concept of general education, let alone the ideal of a liberal education, is largely unknown. This fall, my campus welcomed 4,360-some freshmen. The number of Americans seeking a degree has gone up dramatically, and the number of international students coming here to acquire an American degree is also rising. All of them need our help to make meaning of their liberal educations as a whole—and of their general educations in particular. And so will members of the class of 2019 and 2020 and on and on and on. As Giroux said, “liberal education is a way of life that has to be fought for.” That's why the AGLS came into being in 1961, why it still exists today, and why it will still be here twenty years from now.

In short term, I look forward to seeing you in Milwaukee in 2015!

Margaret M. (Meg) Mulrooney
AGLS President

What Will Your Verse Be?

Joyce Lucke - Thursday, August 21, 2014

What will your verse be?

The recent death of Robin Williams shocked the world. 'Heartbroken' is seen again and again in social media posts, expressed in interviews and undoubtedly felt by millions of fans.

Tributes and retrospectives highlight his varied career--featuring routines from stand up, television shows, movies and Broadway performances. Clips from stand-out performances are being replayed repeatedly in every media outlet.

Each of us likely has a favorite performance. Mine is from Dead Poets Society.

Carpe Diem is what many would consider to be the movie’s message, and an often quoted scene of dialogue. For me, another scene hit home, indirectly changing my path in life.

John Keating (Williams) tells his students, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” challenging his students to leave their seats and have the courage to view their familiar classroom from a different perspective--setting them on a path that will impact their lives forever.

I remember how I felt watching the film as a graduate student who was about to step into my first classroom as a teaching assistant. I remember wanting to stand on a desk and be John Keating.

Reflecting on why I choose anthropology as my discipline in part stemmed from wanting to see the world from another perspective. After I had a few years teaching under my belt, I was asked to write a teaching philosophy. As I began to write down what teaching meant and my role as a teaching I came to realize I was standing on John Keating’s desk.

How many of us were inspired by Robin William’s performance in Dead Poets Society to become teachers? To go into the humanities or liberal arts? Browsing through the outpouring of tributes on social media, there is a flood of posts from teachers remembering Robin and how his portrayal of John Keating inspired them to enter education.

As I watch clips of Robin Williams, thinking how his performance influenced me, what resonates with me now is the scene of Keating telling the boys what his classroom philosophy is by explaining why poetry is important to these future doctors, lawyers, business mavens and politicians.

In my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. I can see that look in Mr. Pitt's eyes that 19th-century literature has nothing to do with going to business school and medical school. Right? Maybe. Mr. Hopkins--you may agree with him thinking yes, we should simply study our Mr. Pritchard, and learn our rhyme and meter, and go quietly about the business of achieving other ambitions. I have a secret for you. Huddle up. We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

How fascinating to look back and realize how the movie impacted me. Here I am now, as the executive director of an association championing the need to keep in education what makes us human!

Of course, the film is complex and nuanced along many themes. While perhaps narrow in scope, the film can be viewed as a tribute to the profession at its best...teaching not merely of a subject but for the person as well. Isn’t that what we would all like to have -- a lifelong impact on students' lives?

We want our students to be changed for life...to inspire our students to embrace all of life and be changed for life from all the perspectives they encounter while at university. Not only to give them the foundations of a careers but of a life. We want to inspire them so their words, ideas and passions change the world.

John Keating was a maverick whose own passion and skill was focused on teaching his students to not settle for simply becoming a job but to become fully human. That poetry is what makes life worth living. Standing on the desk top would give them the world, as they would be able to see options from there they never would have thought possible.

I think Mr. Keating would agree his philosophy should be extended beyond poetry to all of the arts, humanities and liberal arts. I would even dare to say that Mr. Keating might be a member of AGLS.

Keating asks the boys, what will your verse be?  As we begin a new semester, walking into a classroom of new faces or meeting with a student for the first time, we can affirm what our verse will be. How will I inspire the student before me to appreciate and value how poetry makes us human? Will I be able to convince the student to climb onto the desk so they begin to understand why general education and liberal studies courses will give them wings to soar in whatever job they pursue?

O Captain, My Captain, your fearful trip is done. Your verse has been written. I hope you know how it has and will forever impact those that read it.

Welcome to Gen Ed on My Mind

Joyce Lucke - Monday, May 19, 2014
Welcome to Gen Ed on My Mind!

Our first post goes back to nearly a decade before the origins of AGLS. For more than 50 years the value of a liberal arts education has been discussed. And AGLS has been there as a part of the conversation. We begin our pondering with a short piece by the ultimate STEM scholar.


Education for Independent Thought
from the New York Times, October 5, 1952

It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he--with his specialized knowledge--more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to community.

These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not--or at least not in the main--through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the "humanities" as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the field of history and philosophy.

Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kills the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included.

It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects (point system). Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality. Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.


~Albert Einstein