What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate's "College Week."
I used to think that postmodernists and multiculturalists got a bad rap when it came to general education. Amid the confused alarms of the 1990s culture wars, very few people realized that some of the most determined opponents of general education courses in the Western tradition were quite far afield—over in the finance, physics, and engineering wings of the campus, where neither professors nor students could be persuaded to see the point of getting acquainted with the Western literary and philosophical tradition from Plato to Nietzsche (or Homer to DeLillo).
Though I understood those professors' desires to train students in the dense technical aspects of their fields, I believed that A) students of finance, physics, and engineering will, upon graduation, have to live in an advanced society partly of their own making; B) anyone who hopes to reflect seriously on his place in that society has a positive obligation to verse him- or herself in the history of human thought; and C) at this time, in this country, Plato-to-the-present courses in "Western thought" are as good a place as any (and better than most) to start.
I still believe that courses in Western thought are essential to a liberal arts education; but I'm more circumspect about how many wings of your average research university aren't interested in the ideals of liberal arts education. In the course of serving on this committee and that, I've discovered that the people who oppose rigorous gen-ed requirements don't always come from finance, physics, and engineering; sometimes they come from psychology, art and design, or law and criminal justice. Every department finds ingenious ways of keeping its majors to itself: I'm most familiar with literature departments that require 30 or 36 credits for the major, but I know that many programs, from music to metallurgy, demand 50, 60, even 70-something credits from their students. This strikes me as a powerful form of academic territorialism, one that is unlikely to be overcome by well-meaning appeals to critical cosmopolitanism. And if, as I suspect, it is driven by departmental budgets (that is, by the need to put bodies in seats and keep them there), then general education requirements at research universities will remain nothing more than window dressing.
But I can dream, and when I do, I dream that American colleges and universities will acquaint students not only with the richest literary and philosophical works in the Western tradition but also with the history of the ways in which we humans have thought about and dealt with the fact of disability.
Disability? you wonder. It's not enough that the pomos and multicultis have insisted on race and gender and sexuality and what-have-you? Now students have to think about marginal subjects like disability?
Well, yes, it would be nice—if only to prevent people from thinking about disability as a marginal subject. From genomics to prenatal testing to special education to employment discrimination to mental illness to advance directives to Alzheimer's, disability is integral to how humans define the parameters of the human. It's central to every idea of autonomous personhood and every conception of citizenship.
It wouldn't take all that much to get students to see why disability matters; once you see why it matters, you begin to see how ubiquitous it is, and you don't need constant reminders. A course that included Henri-Jacques Stiker's A History of Disability, Alasdair Macintyre's Dependent Rational Animals, and Eva Kittay's Love's Labor would make a powerful case for the centrality of disability in Western thought, and a syllabus that included Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky's The New Disability History: American Perspectives would demonstrate that disability is as critical to ideas of American identity as are race and immigration (and the history of race and immigration in the United States has everything to do with theories about the cognitive abilities and disabilities of the peoples of the world).
As it happens, your average campus contains hundreds of scholars and students circling the elephant—in colleges of law, education, arts and humanities, medicine—none of whom call the elephant by name. And I think it's no accident that so few people in public life understand disability issues or disability politics—unless they happen to know someone with a disability, someone whose life makes disability visible as disability.
If we can remedy that—if we can acquaint college students with varieties of human mindedness and human embodiment so that they develop the capacity to think about disability not as an affliction blighting individual bodies but as a phenomenon that colors our conceptions of freedom, justice, and the good life—then we'll have made all that tedious gen-ed committee work worthwhile. And we'll have done our students—and our fellow citizens, able-bodied and disabled, a positive service.
Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Penn State University and the co-director, with Janet Lyon, of Penn State's disability studies program.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel.