Education In General

After recently seeing Ken Robinson’s most recent TED appearance, How to escape education’s Death Valley, we were reminded of an interesting report published by Harvard University on the theme of General Education. The report outlines the research findings of an internal task force that was put together to develop a significant component to Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum. This educational component would have the ambition of enabling undergraduates ‘to put all the learning they are doing at Harvard, outside as well as inside the classroom, in the context of the people they will be and the lives they will lead after college’. Simply put, the challenge was to provide Harvard’s undergraduates with an extended curriculum for dealing with a rapidly changing, and increasingly culturally diverse, world. Something we are sure Sir Ken would agree with.

The report begins by outlining the need for a general education and what might constitute the basis of such an education. A Harvard education is described as a liberal education, that is, ‘an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without the concern for topical relevance or vocational utility’. This type of education is designed to heighten students’ awareness of the world they inhabit, making them ‘more reflective about their beliefs and choices, more self conscious and critical of their presuppositions and motivations, more creative in their problem solving, more perceptive of the world around them, and more able to inform themselves about the issues that arise in their lives, personally, professionally, and socially’. The report goes on to outline the goals of a general education, these include, preparing students for civic engagement; understanding themselves as products of, and participants in, traditions in art, ideas and values; responding critically and constructively to change; and developing their understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do. In short, a general education provides the ‘preparation for the rest of life’.

But what does this attempt to fulfill an identified need tell us about the current state of education? Well, if you take Harvard as an example (as they certainly represent the rule, rather than the exception) then within its educational boundaries we would see the evidence of a dominant curriculum that has appeared over the last twenty years or so. This curriculum is the product of reforms that have positioned education as primarily a tool for economic growth. These reforms have manifested themselves in various guises, including the so called ‘Bologna Process’, under which recently, the Bucharest Communiqué announced that its three key priorities for educational reform were ‘mobility, employability and quality’. And here in the UK, recent announcements surrounding the seemingly ever increasing changes to the secondary educational system, appear to be following similar lines.

Positioning education as primarily a tool for economic growth reduces its potential for broader needs within a democratic society. Independent and critical citizens are crucial for the basis of a healthy democracy and a liberal education is the foundation of that ideal. As we have highlighted before, it is the Arts & Humanities that provide the basis for a liberal education, and as Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, ‘liberal education promotes understanding across different sectors of society…it refines the ability to think critically and examine the arguments of politicians, which keeps them accountable, and promotes a civil and reasonable style of debate’.

As Sir Ken has repeatedly stated, the need to grow and develop areas, such as the Arts & Humanities, within our educational systems, is now more urgent than ever. The reason Harvard has attempted to institute the changes to its curriculum, as described in the report, should be obvious to all. In their own words, a general education should be about ‘teaching students to think critically and analytically, by exposing them to the sense of alienation produced by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural phenomena that exceed their, and even our own, capacity to understand. Liberal education is vital because professional schools don’t teach these things, employers don’t teach them, and even most academic programs do not teach them’. What seems unfortunate about this situation is that, faced with our current problems and the rate of change in which they occur, these are the skills we need our educational institutions to teach the most.