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The Destruction of the College and the Collapse of General Education

by Mervyn L. Cadwallader - 1983

The modern research university has wiped out general and liberal learning in American colleges and universities. The need to restore a sense of purpose to colleges which offer general education is discussed, along with the importance of placing a proper value on teaching. (Source: ERIC)


American collegiate education is being overtaken by a sea of troubles driven by declining enrollments, a steady shift in student demand, the ravages of inflation, periodic budget cuts, painful layoffs, and an angry turn to unionization. It will be difficult to see opportunity in all of this but the bitter trials that lie just ahead can and must be the occasion for both a radical analysis of the ends and means of collegiate education and a creative response to problems revealed by analysis.


Amid conflicting and confusing calls for practical programs and theoretical research, open admissions and higher standards, depth and distribution, collegiality and collective bargaining, it is good to hear renewed concern expressed over what should be taught in the lower division, how it should be taught, and for whom. It is my hope that the difficult days ahead will force us to think about, and then do something about, the first two years of college. The general-education movement seems to have convinced most of us that the first two years of college are properly spent becoming generally educated. Most of our campuses have general requirements the end of which is the acquisition of as much breadth as possible before the narrow demands of a major restrict the student’s choice. The usual means to breadth is a distribution formula that in no way threatens the elective system, or departmental sovereignty. Nevertheless, while a distribution formula may spread out a student’s choices over a formidable array of courses, it is unlikely to provide coherence, integration, and synthesis. In fact, it is difficult not to be embarrassed by the way distribution requirements tend to reflect the distribution of departmental power, rather than a common and compelling vision of what should be taught and learned. Unfortunately, the high hopes that James Conant held out for a new kind of general education have turned into requirements that students see as arbitrary, and service courses that faculty do not want to teach.1


Is lower-division general education just a compressed education in the liberal arts disciplines that happen to be housed in a college of letters and sciences? Is a general education the same thing as a liberal education? Though these are often discussed as if they were identical, it is possible to draw distinctions between general education, defined as a broad introduction to the principal academic disciplines or fields of research with their current methods and findings; the liberal arts, viewed as skills of inquiry of which the most important is learning to read; and a liberal education, which I wish to define as an education in inquiry and reflection, the purpose of which is preparation for political responsibility.2 In this view a liberal education is one intended to cultivate those intellectual habits that are most needed if men and women are to rule themselves.3 However, I do not want to pursue these distinctions in the first part of this article because I do not want to divide and lose my readers over the issue of general versus liberal education. Whether we favor the reform of general education through a better distribution of more appropriate courses, or by means of a required core of more appropriate courses, or dream of a return to the seven traditional liberal arts, or follow Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Meiklejohn in advocating a political theory of liberal learning, the principal locus of our critical and creative efforts must be the lower division. Something must be done about the first two years.


Here are some of the problems that seem endemic to the lower division. There is little coherence to any student’s course of study. All too often freshmen and sophomores take introductory courses designed as stepping stones into a major, or they take survey courses they do not want to take from teachers who do not want to teach them. The specialized departments continue to encroach on the lower division with demands for prerequisites. Somehow the first two years have become an obstacle course of requirements and prerequisites to be gotten out of the way, two years wasted in making up for what was missed in high school while waiting for the useful courses that will lead to graduation and a job.4


Some of the reasons for this unhappy situation are easy enough to diagnose, and indeed have received considerable attention in both the academic and the popular press. We lament the great shift in prestige from teaching to research, the rise of the specialist and the specialized disciplines, the proliferation of specialized courses, the ascendancy of the discipline-based departments, and the rapid growth of a professionalized and departmentalized professoriate anxious to reduce teaching loads in order to get on with scholarly work. Furthermore, many if not most of those who advocate general or liberal reform are aware of the formidable obstacles to change that are intrinsic to the academic enterprise. The sovereign power of the department with its commitment to a discipline and a field of research, coupled with faculty allegiance to national learned societies, makes any campus extraordinarily resistant to reform.5 Yet, despite these problems, prescriptions for change have been offered by a goodly company the last few years, and that company includes Arthur Levine, Ernest Boyer, Eva T. H. Brann, Paul Dressel, Henry Rosovsky, Jerry G. Gaff, Joseph Tussman, and Richard Jones.6


It would probably be accurate to say that each of these analyses and prescriptions, along with an implicit if not explicit call for reform, has been addressed to an audience made up of university professors, or university trained college professors. The irony of this is that these analyses and calls for change are often delivered on university campuses to university audiences without much if any attention being paid to the primary cause of the problem and the first obstacle to reform-the university system itself. It is the ascendancy and hegemony of the ethos of the modern research university that has virtually wiped out both general and liberal learning in American higher education.


Let me assert boldly and bluntly that educational reformers cannot revive and revitalize general or liberal education in an atmosphere characterized by the unreflecting and uncritical acceptance of dominant university values. Whether we are trying to restore vitality and coherence to general education, or political significance to liberal education, we must recognize that providing the conditions for a general or liberal education is a college, not a university, activity. The goals and practices of the liberal undergraduate college and the goals and practices of the graduate university have been and are so radically different as to be incompatible.7 What is left of general or liberal teaching in America today continues to be attenuated and distorted by the ethos of the research university.


This transformation is a consequence of the training of college faculty by university faculty. It is not the result of a malevolent conspiracy. The problem is that college teachers are trained by specialized university research professors to become specialized university research professors-not college teachers. The university-trained academicians who end up with jobs at unselective teaching colleges, rather than a research university, try to turn those colleges into universities, and failing that, to at least change their names. The new academic prestige structure is increasingly one-dimensional as colleges and universities all across the’ land, staffed by the same kind of faculty, line up and play follow the flagship. Now that the American academic revolution has run its course, colleges are the captives of the university ethos and the only faculty, other than occasional quixotic reformers, who still talk about building character without any embarrassment whatsoever are coaches. This profound change in the fundamental orientation of undergraduate teachers is one of the most significant aspects of the academic revolution for those concerned with the problem, the promise, and the failure of general and liberal education.


Let me say a little more about the strikingly different and mutually incompatible roles of the college and the university-described for the sake of this argument as ideal types. (Although I may risk losing my friends in the general-education camp, my sketch of an ideal college will be that of a liberal college in the tradition of Jefferson and Meiklejohn.8)


The ideal liberal college is made up of teachers organized and rewarded for a peculiar kind of teaching, that is, for creating the conditions for inquiry and reflection. The goal of such a college is the cultivation of civility, the shaping of character, the nurture of mind, and the encouragement of at least a first step toward wisdom. The college uses knowledge rather than adding to it.9 The greatest achievement of civilized society is the cultivation of civilized minds, and the peculiar American institution of the college, situated as it is between training in the schools and training in the universities, is in an especially strategic location for the cultivation of civility of mind, and civic responsibility. Finally, the college in its social organization is more like a cohesive village than a competitive and complex city.


The ideal research university is made up of scholars and scientists organized and rewarded for research. The goal of the university is to seek, to verify, and to accumulate knowledge. The university takes pride in and seeks support for the greatest possible variety and quantity of research. There is a great and continuous scramble for grants and more grants, while conferences multiply and libraries fill up with mountains of learned papers. And of course there are students, but at the ideal university they are all graduate students. The university is more like a small, active, and very political city than just about any other kind of social organization. It is certainly not at all like a village. Because substantial financial support must be sought aggressively (grants do not fall from the heavens), the economics and politics of university research and teaching have produced the multiversity. Shaped by several decades of scholarly opportunism, the modern university has given up all pretense of subscribing to a controlling curricular vision for the general or liberal education of its freshmen and sophomores. Armed with a distribution formula, the undergraduate student enters the research city in search of a major, not a general or liberal education.


Here in the United States we continue to be attracted and confused by two radically different traditions, on the one hand that of the colonial college, and on the other, the German research university. In the early history of this country the vehicle for a general and a liberal education that was also vocational was the colonial college. The opening of Johns Hopkins in 1876 marked a development that has been and is hostile, profoundly hostile, to the unique calling of the college.10


From 1819 on, it was the lodestone of the German research university that attracted the attention of ever larger numbers of American teachers, and over nine thousand of them followed George Ticknor there in the course of the nineteenth century. It was the ideal of the German university that gave rise to the first graduate schools and the eventual dominance of the research university in America. The rise of the research university coincided with and did much to cause the decline in the importance and vitality of the college. With the decline of the college, concern for character gave way to concern for subject matter, and American university and college teachers facing toward Germany rather than England came to teach special subjects, not whole students. The rise of departments and disciplines and the adoption of the elective system meant that the education of the whole student was increasingly left to chance.


It is the conflict of college and university that holds at least one key to an understanding of the increasing incoherence of the lower division and of the failure of general and liberal learning to capture the minds and imaginations of either teachers or students. In an environment dominated by the goals and values of the great research universities, general education has all too often degenerated into the teaching of despised service courses filled by a distribution formula, rather than being guided and inspired by a sense of mission. Reflect for a moment on just a few of the controlling values of the American university. We are taught that each academic discipline possesses a special integrity of its own. Sovereign departments seem to be necessary guardians of the disciplines. Serious scholarship is always specialized scholarship within a discipline. The search for and publication of new specialized knowledge is the essential and characteristic activity of university professors. Tenured faculty should all have a research degree. The best undergraduates are those who show an interest in a discipline, and go off to a good graduate school. Scholarship is desirable work; teaching is a load. The less teaching the more desirable the academic appointment. Finally, research is good for teaching, even if faculty do not teach what they research. It should be self-evident that values and attitudes such as these undermine rather than support general and liberal teaching. College values and university values are incompatible, if not contradictory.


I am putting great emphasis on the destructive role of the modern German-inspired research university because we need to know the principle source of our difficulties if we are going to be able to do something with the lower division that will be both significant and permanent. Complex organizations can be either called or crippled by their history, energized or limited by their ideals, released or constrained by their structure. If general and liberal reformers expect to win control over even a small sector of higher education, they must identify the enemy. The enemy is the research university. This is not to say that the research universities must be destroyed if the colleges are to live. The fundamental incompatibility of the two does not necessarily mean that they cannot coexist in the same republic. It does mean that educators must understand just how different the one is from the other, how important it is to prevent either one from controlling the other, and then to figure out ways to encourage their simultaneous but separate existence. It seems to me that the only hope for carrying through radical and lasting changes in lower-division education is to revive the ideal of the college. The only way to revive and restore the college, to make it a place where ends, not means, are studied, is to separate it from the university. The college must become distinct, different-radically different-from the university. It must be spiritually independent, and understood, supported, and respected for its distinct mission by both the university and the public.


Can any college with a university-trained faculty become spiritually independent of the American university system? With the right kind of  vision- perhaps. Can the faculty of a college that is located on a university campus turn away from research and the transmission of subject matter to the cultivation of intelligence, reasonableness, and civic responsibility? With vision and lots of energy-perhaps.


Alexander Meiklejohn’s Experimental College at Madison, Tussman’s experiment at Berkeley, and my own at San Jose were radical critiques of what we believed to be the dangerous distortion of undergraduate education by the research-oriented universities .ll These reforms were reforms undertaken in the hope of returning lower-division teaching to some of the lost ideals and goals, though not the exact content nor the pedagogy of the best of the American colonial colleges. Each was animated by a similar and distinctive vision of the purposes of a liberal curriculum and the purposes of an undergraduate college. All sought to save the college by turning it into an educating community dominated by a moral vision of human society. All sought ways of cultivating intelligence, reasonableness, and understanding. The college, in this view, was not in competition with the university, whose business it is to pursue knowledge and train for the vocations. The proper business of the college was to cultivate wisdom, to shape character, and to prepare young adults for their political roles.


Alexander Meiklejohn’s Experimental College lasted five years, from 1927 to 1932, on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. Joseph Tussman’s 1965 revival lasted just four years at the University of California, Berkeley. The San Jose experiment ran for six years, from 1965 to 1971. Is such a short life span telling evidence against the staying power of anti-university reforms? I think not, and although the evidence of recent history seems weighted against us, I am suggesting that we must do our best to plant lower-division programs inspired and guided by the ideals of the liberal college right in the middle of the great research cities. It is my hope that we can take creative advantage of the coming crisis in higher education to do so, rather than simply succumb to falling enrollments and shrinking budgets.


I believe that we should try to revive the spirit of the college in order to make lower-division teaching stimulating and profoundly satisfying. We must do something about lower-division teaching to prevent it from becoming boring, or mere employment.‘* The excitement and satisfaction of following an exalted calling rather than just doing a job, the renewed vitality that comes from growing intellectually, the stimulus that comes from discovering new ways to teach, and the nurturing support that comes from being a part of a real community-all of these can be the consequence of collaborative teaching in programs designed around the lessons learned at Madison, Black Mountain, St. John’s, Chicago, Berkeley, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Green Bay, and Evergreen.13 Any lower division can become an exciting place to teach, and a memorable place to study, simply through the adaptation and continuation of radically liberal experiments in college teaching.14


In their 1932 report to the Faculty of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin, Meiklejohn and his faculty urged the reorganization of the lower half of the College of Letters and Science. Here are three of their concrete suggestions:


1. Student social life and student education might profit greatly if the thirty-six hundred freshmen and sophomores in the College of Letters and Science were divided into fifteen or twenty smaller colleges, each with its own social organization and social interests.


2. There would be very great gain if the teachers of the lower college could act, not only as one body, but also as fifteen or twenty smaller faculties, each considering the educational problem as a whole, each working out its own aims and methods in relative independence.


3. The experience of the Experimental College suggests a way in which college teachers might, much more satisfactorily than at present, be trained for the art of teaching.15


That was good advice in 1932; I think it is even better advice today, and I am not alone. Grant and Riesman returned to the very same solution forty-six years later, in 1978. Here is their modest proposal:


In fact, one could argue that while the departments form a satisfactory community for groups of specialists and graduate students who choose to associate with them, they are not the best form of community for general undergraduate education. What, then, ought to be the basis of intellectual and social community for undergraduates? This is the heart of the debate that is being renewed with a gathering momentum. We favor a pluralism of core programs or sub-colleges of which the early Santa Cruz represents an appealing ideal . . . to serve as the basis of community, they should be integrating experiences, as was, for example, the early Cowell College at Santa Cruz or Meiklejohn’s two-year Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin.16


There is something else that Grant and Riesman discovered: “A heightened sense of common purpose and common experiences are [sic] uniquely possible in such communities. Those who have taught in them have discovered that these experiences are as significant in the renewal of faculty as they are in fostering the growth of students.”l7


What better reason is there for attempting to recreate the structure and the spirit of the college?




1 James Conant inherited the Harvard of Charles W. Eliot and Abbot Lawrence Lowell, and tried to do something about it. The writers of General Education in a Free Society, the so-called Harvard “Redbook” of 1945, examined the whole question of an American education that would be necessary for the creation and sustenance of a common democratic culture. By contrast, Harvard’s 1978 Report on the Core Curriculum is not only much narrower but gravely disappointing. The spirit of Eliot rules Harvard to this day.   


2 This is a definition of liberal education very much in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Meiklejohn. See Alexander Meiklejohn, Education between Two Worlds (New York: Atherton, 1965).


3 Eva T. H. Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979).


4 The Liberal Education Seminars at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay seem to have been an attempt to do something about the lack of coherence and integration in typical programs of general education.


5 Lewis B. Mayhew, Surviving the Eighties (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979), is just one of many who offers a sobering account of academic resistance to change.


6 Of course there were and are many others, including Daniel Bell, Mark Van Doren, Charles Wegener, David Riesman, Laurence Veysey.


7 “The college is everywhere in retreat, fighting a dispirited rearguard action against the triumphant university” (Joseph Tussman, Experiment at Berkeley [New York: Oxford University, Press, 1969], p. xiv).


8 “If a person is reasonable and kind in his dealings with his fellow-men, whether or not he knows chemistry or metaphysics or economics or literary history, he is essentially well-educated” (Alexander Meiklejohn, in Learning and Living, ed. Walker H. Hill [Chicago: Hill, 1942], p. 36).


9 Cardinal Newman’s description of an ideal university education seems to be about what I call a liberal college education, not a university education. Newman asserts in his preface that a university is a place for the diffusion of knowledge. The extension of knowledge was to be the business of learned societies. Jose Ortega y Gasset in his Mission of the University (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966) wishes to reform the Spanish universities by turning them into liberal colleges. “It will consequently avoid causing the ordinary student to waste part of his time in pretending that he is going to be a scientist.”


10 If we as a people had colleges that were closer to the ideal than our contemporary schools, what happened to them? Popular needs, translated into effective demands from students, parents, and trustees, completely transformed the colonial colleges. The colonial college patterned on Oxford gave way to the utilitarian and research university, and the prescribed classical curriculum gave way to free student selection. Why? Because energetic and upwardly mobile Americans wanted it that way. Nevertheless, something important was lost, or better yet, thrown away in the course of the great academic revolution that started around 1870 and continues to this day. The colonial colleges and denominational colleges of the early republic were unabashedly concerned with shaping character. It is proper that we decry the narrow dogmatism of the curricula of the denominational colleges, but we should not be proud of having abandoned the responsibility for building character.


11 For the stories of these three experiments see Alexander Meiklejohn, The Experimental College (New York: Arno Press, 1971; reissued in 1981 by Seven Locks Press, Washington, D.C.); Tussman, Experiment in Berkeley; and Mervyn Cadwallader, “Experiment at San Jose,” in his Alternative Higher Education and Its Relevance to the 1980’s (Olympia, Wash.: Evergreen State College, 1981).


12 On boredom and its cure see Richard M. Jones, Experiment at Evergreen (Cambridge: Schenkman, 1981).


13 One source for some of these lessons is Gerald Grant and David Riesman, The Perpetual Dream (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).


14 Faculty at Superior, Whitewater, Green Bay, and Madison (Wisconsin) have found new vitality-just in planning.


15 Meiklejohn, The Experimental College, 1971, pp. 246-247.


16 Grant and Riesman, The Perpetual Dream, p. 369. The early core programs called “coordinated studies” at Evergreen State College were consciously patterned on Meiklejohn’s model. For that story see Jones, Experiment at Evergreen.


17 Grant and Riesman, The Perpetual Dream, p. 370.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 4, 1983, p. 909-916
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 784, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:25:46 PM

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About the Author
  • Mervyn Cadwallader
    University of Wisconsin, Platteville
    E-mail Author
    MERVYN L. CADWALLADER, who is currently vice chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, has spent many years working at the rehabilitation of the idea and ideals of the undergraduate college, first at San Jose College, then at the State University of New York-College at Old Westbury, and finally at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
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