The Philosophy of General Education and Its Contradictions: The Influence of Hutchins

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Journal of General Education





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In this paper, I will attempt to place the current Chicago controversy, which led to Sonnenschein’s resignation in May 1999, within a historical context. I will begin by outlining the history of general education requirements at Chicago from their origins in the early part of the century to the present. Then I will analyze the pronouncements of the group of professors at Chicago and Columbia, including Hutchins, who called themselves the “general education movement” in the 1930s and 40s. These men helped establish general education at those schools and inspired other universities around the country to follow their lead. The writings of these thinkers form a fairly coherent philosophy of general education. While this philosophy did not dictate the precise form general education took in this country, it is the most influential component of the pro-general education forces. Through scholarly writings on education and popularized versions of their philosophy, Hutchins and his circle saw themselves as shaping undergraduate education in this country and self-consciously promoted their achievement. To some extent, they were correct. Many of the changes he and his colleagues wrought upon education are still with us. Still with us as well are the internal contradictions and inconsistencies within the philosophy of general education. By exploring those contradictions, I hope to dispel the myth of a golden age of general education. Today’s educational controversies at Chicago and elsewhere in part originate in unresolved contradictions in the original philosophy of general education. In the final section of the paper, I will suggest some of the ways the philosophy of general education influenced curriculum requirements at American colleges and some of the new problems general education faces. While this paper offers no solutions to the sixty-plus year debate over general education, I hope that it will assist in placing these debates within a historical perspective.


Curriculum change--Philosophy; Education; Higher--Administration--Decision making; General education--Evaluation; History--Comparative method


Curriculum and Social Inquiry | Higher Education Administration | History | United States History




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