Ethics Article: Teaching and Learning: The Gift of General Education

Gen Ed - Ethics


There is something very special about general education. Of course, yes, I am decidedly biased. I teach in general education and have actually studied general education at the graduate level; something people are always surprised to hear is even possible. Why would anyone do this? After all, it’s not like you can take your general education degree to the personnel department of a general education company in hopes of being hired. Further, if you fill in the “occupation” slot on any form with “generalist,” people will truly think you’ve lost it.

While I certainly didn’t pursue a master’s degree to eventually teach in general education, it was teaching that finally answered this question for me. Moreover, teaching is the source of my certainty that—independent of my obvious bias—there is something about general education that’s unique in an almost indescribable way.

When we set ourselves the task of teaching or learning in general education, we accept the challenge of creating, either in our students or ourselves, a deepened sense of how our society works, how it has developed, where it seems to have taken right or wrong turns, and the challenges we currently face. With equal attention we work to develop a richer, more meaningful sense of what it means to be human. Why we do we express ourselves through art in every culture and era, and what is it we are expressing? Why do we find ourselves both concerned and confused about what it means to be a moral human being?

The strange thing is, when we actually sit down to describe the many sorts of queries we pursue under the heading of “general education,” somehow the goals of instructor and student coalesce in a unique way. When I discover a student’s heightened appreciation of, say, a pocket of his or her culture never noticed before, my own understanding of the culture we share is deepened. When a student begins to personally investigate, for example, why early abstract artists chose to paint unrecognizable things, I find I have developed a new understanding of abstract art and how it reaches people. When a nurse in bioethics decides to explain the complexity and nuance of the questions we address, my understanding of the things we all share as human beings is deepened.

That’s the uniqueness. While teaching within a discipline is satisfying (my own eventually became philosophy), teaching either across typical departmental boundaries or within the context of a general education department is something else entirely. Through the educational process, student and instructor discover a shared interest in understanding what joins us as human beings and members of a common culture. Moreover, our interest is shared by those whose work we read, view, or discuss. In short, through a general education course we create a small society whose common bond is an interest in developing our understanding of who we are.

In this way, yes, general education is special. Boundaries between teacher and student often yield to deeper bonds. I suppose, too, that this is the source of my bias. To create this little culture in the classroom is a wondrous thing and surely its own reward. Taking part each day in the grand human conversation is what we do. It’s unique to general education students and their educators, and, ultimately, it unites us.

Diane O'Leary, PhD
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