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Network of Scholars

Internationally known and respected education leaders answer your questions!

In session now: Louis Menand

Ervin:  Your book The Marketplace of Ideas, Reform and Resistance in the American University is a noted inclusion in W.W. Norton’s Issues of Our Time seriesIn the preface to your work, series editor Henry Louis Gates praises you for “invit[ing] the reader to reexamine hand-me-down assumptions [of] and to grapple with powerful trends” in education. The first chapter in your book is “The Problem of General Education.” What are any hand-me-down assumptions of general education that are worth preserving, especially in the twenty-first century?  Are there any assumptions of general education for which we are better off without?

Menand:  The original rationale for general education requirements was to provide courses outside departmental boundaries that helped to prepare students for the world they will live in after college, where most will not become academics, or even intellectuals. General education curricula that attempt to provide a micro-version of the academic disciplines seem to me pointed in the wrong direction. General education is the public face of liberal education. It’s the one place where the curriculum can grapple with issues students are likely to face after college.

Ervin:  You provide a succinct historical scope of “reform” of general education in American education.  Based on this history, what should reformers of a general education curriculum in the twenty-first century take from the experiences of earlier reformers?

Menand: You will not get everyone on board with your program, but not everyone needs to teach a general education course. If the curriculum is designed with present conditions in mind, it will have to be redesigned in twenty years. There is no shame in that. And the creation and implementation of these curricula should be in the hands of faculty, though faculty may need administrative encouragement and support to undertake them. Finally, every college is different—has different students, alumni, traditions, missions, different DNA. A general education program should be designed with this in mind. One size does not fit all.

Ervin:  In “The Problem of General Education,” you provide a structuralist interrogation of the two basic systems of general education ---e.g., the distribution model and the core model.  Is it safe to conclude that a core model and extradepartmental courses for general education are more likely to assist institutions in developing a General Education that introduces “every” student to a common experience, scholarly methods, etc?

Menand:  Yes.

Ervin:  Today, grants are being awarded largely by foundations, the Department of Education, and others to undergraduate institutions for the purpose of increasing the presence of students in STEM programs.  How might reformers avoid the mistake of framing and promoting  specialized mathematics, science and technology courses in the guise of general education mathematics, science and technology courses?

Menand:  STEM fields are the hardest to represent in a general education program, since a significant portion of undergraduates do not have the math needed to really learn something about those subjects, and scientists and engineers don’t respect science-without-math pedagogy. But every student needs exposure to science and technology, even if the approach  is social-scientific.


Louis Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University.


In session with:
Louis Menand

James A. Anderson and Walter Earl Fluker

The United States gets “ 60 percent less for [its] education dollars in terms of average test-score results than do other wealthy nations.”  Too, “there is a striking gap between the performance of America’s top students [minorities included] and that of top students elsewhere…In 1995, America was tied for first in college graduation rates; by 2006 this ranking had dropped to 14th” (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2006).




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