From The Multiversity Cave: General Education


Saginaw, MI

This post is part of a series that will explore what prominent thinkers can teach us about today’s public multiversity, the modern university with its many colleges, departments, and other administrative units that play multiple functions and roles in our society.

One of the present paradigms of the multiversity has been informed by mathematics and the natural sciences where methodology, standardization, and replicable data are the principles to organize the multiversity. But as I have pointed out in my last point, the multiversity’s ends only can be determined from disciplines outside of mathematics and the natural sciences: the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences. Students, faculty, and administrators are not homogenous units that can be easily processed and assessed but rather particular and contingent agents that require individual evaluation by those who know what is best for them as well as the multiversity. Instead of engaging in self-flagellation, the humanities and social sciences need to make a positive account of what they can offer to the multiversity in determining its ends.

Two thinkers who recognize this insight and advocate for such an education are John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Locke believes the purpose of education is to cultivate a love of learning with gentlemen acquiring the virtues of wisdom, good-breeding, and an appreciation of liberty; while Mills seeks an education that cultivates human beings in a broad range of learning that includes intellectual, moral, and aesthetic subjects. Education for both Locke and Mill is to produce good human beings rather than competent specialists, which is the aim of today’s multiversity. A brief look at Locke’s and Mill’s views of education may suggest some remedies for the multiversity to move past its Cartesian and Baconian methodology.

Crucial to Locke’s account of education is a good teacher, the correct curriculum, and the willing student. For Locke, a good teacher is one who encourages curiosity in his or her students and rules with a gentle hand except for a student’s “imperiousness or rough usage.” Locke’s teacher is to lead by example, informing students that he or she only has the student’s welfare in mind when teaching foreign language, mathematics, the natural sciences, history, politics, logic, and grammar, for students ultimately want to become rational beings. To become rational, students need discipline and authority in the beginning, with severe punishment discouraged and esteem and shame promoted. It is not enough for students to be intellectually able for Locke, they must develop the right character if they are to become gentlemen.

What we see from Locke’s account is that education is more than intellectual ability: it requires the development of the student’s character as well as the right teacher and curriculum. Students should not only learn mathematics, the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities to acquire the cognitive skills to navigate the world but also cultivate the character of self-discipline, good-breeding, and democratic citizenship. This would require administrators to revisit the multiversity’s role of in loco parentis, something which it has abandoned and enabled some students to a social life of indulgence and, at times, criminal behavior. Such steps to reestablish in loco parentis would be controversial today but might be necessary, if anything to protect the multiversity from lawsuits; and, it would help the multiversity make students rational beings in both character and mind.

Whereas Locke focuses on the private education, Mill writes specifically about the university as an institution to promote an intellectual, moral, and aesthetic education for its students. Mill proposes a curriculum that includes the humanities, particularly classical language and literature, the natural sciences, mathematics, politics, and open to new disciplines like psychology and physiology to be incorporated into the university’s curriculum. The humanities not only teach students how to communicate but to learn to appreciate the beauty of language, art, and music; the sciences provide students how to reason and observe truth correctly; and politics, which also includes political economy and international law, must be learnt by practice, thereby cultivating the moral character for students to be a good citizen.

For Mill, this general education is required for proper human cultivation. It is not the role of the university to promote a specialization of knowledge, as this leads to students possessing a distorted view of the world – “breeding in it a class of prejudices special to that pursuit” – and therefore incapable of becoming either a good person or citizen. If one desires a specialization of knowledge, then he or she should seek it outside the university in a profession. Thus, for Mill, the university is not a place of professional education: colleges like business, education, engineering, health sciences, and so on should be banished from undergraduate education. What makes the university education distinct is to teach students how knowledge is organized and relates to itself, not to provide remedial instruction or technical training.

The manifestation of Mill’s view of education is today’s liberal arts colleges. By contrast, the multiversity includes both remedial instruction and competency training, education which Mill opposes. Whether American higher education should exclude these forms of education is an interesting theoretical question but one that will not change the practical and enduring reality that remedial and professional education will always be part of the multiversity. However, Mill’s idea of a general education of intellect, morality, and aesthetics is adopted in the multiversity’s general education program. In theory, students learn how knowledge is organized and relates to itself intellectually, morally, and aesthetically in the first two years of their education, with the last two years reserved for a specialization of knowledge.

The problem is that students often fail to see how knowledge is organized and relates to itself in the general education program. But this is not an insurmountable problem with several options available to administrators and faculty, such as professors team-teaching; introductory and capstone general education courses; and the realignment of general education to make it more intellectually coherent, morally-engaging, and civic-minded. Too often general education is a territorial dispute among departments for guaranteed classroom enrollment or a place to enforce propagandized thinking. Mill’s desire to show students how knowledge is organized and relates to itself provides a model for administrators and faculty to rethink their general education program to make it more coherent and understandable to students. For once a biology student understands why he or she is an art class or a literature major sees the value of studying physics, then the multiversity has accomplished one of its most difficult tasks: setting students down the path to see how all knowledge is related to itself and to their own lives.

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. More information about him can be found at

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