Restating the Case for General Education (Le Devoir)

By Blandine Parchemal – PhD student in Philosophy at the Université de Montréal, President of the Association des étudiants en philosophie de l’Université de Montréal
Originally published on: January 3, 2015
Original French article:

The University of Berlin model, developed by the philosopher Schleiermacher, went against the more specialized ethos of the medieval universities.  

Twice a month, Le Devoir challenges lovers of philosophy, history and the history of ideas to decipher a current issue by relying upon an important thinker’s theories. 

Last September, the Liberal government announced 172 million dollars in budget cuts to Quebec’s university system. The impact of these record-breaking cutbacks on teaching will be felt as early as this winter and more acutely in 2016. At Université de Montréal, the 2014-2015 budget had to be reduced by 24,6 million. To be specific, UdeM’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences were ordered to downsize lecturing staff by 50 teachers for the winter 2015 semester and by 150 for the following year. Consequently, there are great worries concerning the quality and depth of scholarship.

There is a greater alarm in the fields of study that we generally call the humanities, which are where the greater share of general education in universities takes place (literature, languages, history, philosophy, etc.). In fact, several courses within these departments were cancelled for the winter 2015 semester: Caribbean Literature, Issues in Literary History, History of the Antiquity, History of Latin America, even Aristotle in Philosophy. These cuts only exacerbate the precarious position of these academic disciplines that are often said to be in “crisis” due to their lack of funding, their uncertain professional prospects or their apparent smaller size in comparison with more professional fields of study.

Already in 2009, in a column for the New York Times, Drew Gilpin Faust, the current president of Harvard University, lamented a “dramatic decline in the percentage of students who choose a major in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the resulting increase in professional undergraduate degrees”. Actually, according to recent statistics, the number of bachelor degrees in the humanities awarded in the United States dropped by 50% over the past few decades, going from 14% in 1966 to 7% in 2010. In Quebec, according to the most recent data published in 2010, those with a degree in the humanities represented merely 8,1% of university graduates.

Consequently, in the current context of university cutbacks that are all the more threatening to “nonessential” academic disciplines due to the fact that they do not offer specifically professional training, it is crucial to trace back the roots of the modern university. More precisely, we must examine the university that is considered to be the modern university incarnate: the University of Berlin, founded in 1810, now call Humboldt University. This institution is defined by having been modelled and founded by philosophers at the request of the Prussian minister. In fact, there were three central philosophers involved in the process: Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Even though the latter will have been known as the principle founder of the university, he was nonetheless inspired by Schleiermacher’s ideas on the topic, as expressed in Occasional Thoughts on Universities in the German Sense, written in 1807. We will essentially rely upon the ideas therein in order to demonstrate how Schleiermacher and Humboldt would oppose the cutbacks that are being imposed to the associated fields of general education, and why sustaining the latter is essential to professional training in and of itself.

Contrary to what one might believe, general education did not precede professional training in universities. The medieval university was first and foremost a place of professional education through the traditional departments of law, medicine and theology. These departments were even considered to be superior to the philosophy department, itself considered to be inferior. In light of this situation, Schleiermacher’s motion, taken directly from Kant, consisted in the reversal of that order and the subordination of specialized and “professional” departments to a more “general” core, which would be focused on the exploration of human knowledge. It would be the philosophy department that is to assume that role, the latter having been conceived as independent from, yet at the basis of, the three other departments, themselves more directly linked to the needs of the state. The university certainly maintained a role in professional training, while broadening its aim to “awaken man to the idea of knowledge”, in Schleiermacher’s words, or yet to “awaken the broader scientific sprit”. General education is seen as the core component of a university education. Nevertheless, if the university is to embrace all kinds of knowledge, is does not promote knowledge for knowledge’s sake, strictly speaking; knowledge is not accumulated and quantified, but given cohesion. The philosophy department is to serve as a space for revealing the unity of knowledge and its broader shape, in order for students to reassemble the whole by inscribing the particular in the general. It is only by virtue of this general knowledge that a student would then be equipped to place specific notions within a network of correlations, to draw connections, to understand the root of knowledge. This pivotal point provides students with a better capacity to elucidate certain bodies of knowledge and to grasp them. It is therefore crucial, in Schleiermacher’s opinion, that all particular knowledge stems from more general knowledge, and “there exists no generative scientific ability without a particular speculative spirit”. Theory and practice are connected.

The Importance of General Education

Now, it stems from the fact that he posits this assertion between general knowledge and particular knowledge, the former allowing for the orientation of the latter, that Shcleiermacher defends the importance of general education for students who are not already enrolled in such schooling and for those who are aiming to practice a trade outside of the university. With this in mind, he is critical of the idea of implementing institutions alongside universities for those who are not suited to “scientific schooling” (science or scientific education is understood here as general education) and who would pursue a more specialized vocation leading to a trade. In his opinion, that idea would inspire “terror and fear to anyone who would actively take part in education of youth” insofar as the years spent consolidating general knowledge are also those wherein the spirit is shaped, talents developed, and their true vocation discovered through their efforts. Humboldt sees university education as a unique process called Bildung, which consists of the realization of an individual’s inner aspiration on his or her own and the development of his or her full potential. It is in pursuing science as science that universities will contribute to what Humboldt refers to in his unfinished writings on universities as “the moral education of the nation”. In this way, if the university is the locus of acquisition of theoretical knowledge, it is also considered the space of the true moral and practical schooling. General education is therefore not only good in and of itself, it is also present not solely to transmit knowledge, but to provide our practical orientation, be it in our personal life or in our future professional occupations.

The Example of Civil Servants

That is why, according to Schleiermacher, universities should be thought out to also be graduate schools in order to “help foster those whose talents can be very useful to science even if they renounce to science’s honours”, in other words, by applying the benefits of a general education to their future professional occupations. As an example, Schleiermacher mentions specifically the civil servant, for whom the acquisition of a general education is an asset towards the possibility of higher management positions. In his opinion, not only is a large body of well assimilated knowledge necessary for all managerial tasks, but “a general, comprehensive view, a fair assessment of the relations between different parties, an advanced ability to consider several schools of thought, a wealth of ideas and means” also matter. Know-how is not sufficient. Habermas was to echo this statement 150 years later in Theory and Practice (Theorie und Praxis, 1963) while claiming that if the sciences impart knowledge of the particular today, they no longer teach how to be and act. Consequently, in his opinion, doctors and administrators who have learned only experimental sciences are “capable” of more than practitioners from previous generations, yet “at the same time, they display incredible weaknesses with regards to their initiative and medical practice”. In light of this, the humanities remain essential to provide students who are to be doctors a practical positioning in addition to their technical training, in order to help them cope with the ethical questions they will no doubt come across.

In the end, if making cuts to general education appears at first glance to be easy and inconsequential in the short term insofar as the suppressed elements of knowledge wouldn’t be “profitable” or “of use” to the economy, the founders of the University of Berlin would warn us about the long-term consequences that such cutbacks could have. In fact, be it our ability to navigate specialized and diffuse areas of knowledge, to understand their impact on our society, to reflect upon their ethical consequences, our ability to foster professionals who are equipped with critical self-reflexion or yet our strength to endow citizens with a common culture, they would all be gravely threatened if general education were to find itself relegated to university basements. Schleiermacher’s idea of the university as embodied in the University of Berlin project pushes against a framework of specialization that was entrenched in universities since the Middle Ages while instead upholding the organization of a robust public institution, one that is focused on imparting a general culture as well as fostering thinkers who are able to nurture collective ideas. Do we really wish to go back to the old model?


Translated from the original French by Language and Dissent, a collectively-run blog supporting the anti-austerity struggle in Quebec. These are amateur translations written by volunteers; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may have their flaws. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us via email (languageanddissent [at] gmail [dot] com). Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.

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