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Whatever Happened to General Education?

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Finance, football, and fraternities—not philosophy or physics—are the pillars of the modern American university. It’s been that way for more than a century: In On the Higher Learning in America (1918)—published fewer than forty years after the founding of Johns Hopkins, America’s first research university—Thorstein Veblen, the early-twentieth-century American sociologist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” dismissed American universities as little more than “competitive businesses.” In Plato’s “classic scheme of folly,” he wrote, long before preening professors decried the corporatization of universities, America’s burgeoning institutions of higher education had turned the ancient Greek’s scheme on its head. Businessmen had overtaken universities and were managing the “pursuit of knowledge.”An early reviewer of On the Higher Learning, writing in the New York Times, warned readers that the book was a “gas attack” on a sacred institution. And, almost a century later, in the fall of 2014, Veblens’s rambling but idealistic tirade brought one of my students to tears.

I had started class that day by asking my students whether Veblen’s description of early- twentieth-century American universities resonated with their experiences at the University of Virginia. A young woman in the front row sitting ready with pen and notebook immediately replied, “Yes!” We read Plato and Aristotle on ethics, Fichte and Humboldt on universities, and Jefferson on democracy, she continued. But every one of us knows what happens in the fraternities on Rugby Road, every one of us knows how women are treated across campus, every one of us knows that what we do in class has nothing to do with the world outside class. Yet UVA continues to tell us how it forms Jeffersonian leaders who will change the world for good. It’s all a lie, she said.