February 4, 2002

General Education in the 21st Century

Speaker: Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins Professor of History

Through the 20th century, national crises moved educators to consider how best to nurture the generative values of civilization. Columbia's Core Curriculum took shape through reflections on the educational imperatives arising with World War I and Harvard's General Education in a Free Society followed immediately on the conclusion of World War II. Further, commitment to the study of the essential ideas and values in our tradition arose, not only from the breakdown of civilized order, but as responses to significant changes within leading universities themselves; first, with the rise of the research imperative; and, then with the opening of advanced education to a much broader cross-section of the population.

Suddenly we face these same internal and external challenges to the University's education mission: a crisis in the civilized order of life and the perception of rapid change in the practice of higher education. Massive murder and destruction in our city demonstrates how vulnerable our way of life leaves us in the face of suicidal terror. How, in an age of global interdependency, in which our lives and livelihood all rely on human intelligence combined with personal and collective self-control, can we make freedom and law flourish together? This question will be a challenge for generations to come and answers to it will spring from universities that are changing rapidly in ways that we cannot anticipate with confident foreknowledge. At the same time, new media transform the creation and use of knowledge, alter the conditions of participation in culture, and vastly amplify the reach, the scope, and the power of individual action, for good and for ill. The question then is: What form of general education do we need to create in order to enable society to be both global and free?

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