Jeanette McVicker


General Education is the contested terrain upon which the transformation of the U.S. public university is taking place. This transformation of the public university’s mission from one which primarily served the nation by inculcating a "useful common culture" in the interests of statist consumerism to one that primarily serves transnational corporations by inculcating "efficiency and productivity" in the interests of the "globalization" of capital is uneven and sometimes even contradictory, as the battle over the State University of New York (SUNY) general education curriculum visibly demonstrates. Both of the logical economies inherent in the transformation of the university rely on "the idea of America," though they each construct this ideology differently: one invokes it overtly as a moral imperative and ground for the reproduction of a "shared democratic culture"; the other relies on it implicitly as a technological ground and imperative for "democratic and economic efficiency" that can be exported and reproduced globally. A fundamental imperative of the increasingly corporatized university and its overdetermination of "accountability" is the standardization of general education curricula. SUNY Provost Peter D. Salins, in his recent report on General Education for the SUNY system, writes, for example, that

A searching reexamination of general education within SUNY ... will help us focus our attention and resources. It will direct action at raising standards and aspirations at every institution within the 64 campus system. And it will clearly demonstrate our responsiveness and accountability to various constituencies including parents, the state legislature, civic groups, and the national higher education community.

A standardized core, which reduces the differential dynamics of lived experience to a quantifiable category, allows the university to be "accountable" to the taxpayers and its "customers," and, especially, to the transnational corporations which increasingly demand workers with transferable, technological skills and a "common core experience." Salins notes that "a rigorous general education can prepare students to know how to learn, and to adapt readily to rapid changes in workplace expectations". Defining that "common core" is also the goal of conservative administrators and educators who seek to reinscribe the centrality of an American heritage and Western civilization perceived to have been "shattered" in the aftermath of the 1960s student protests. Both initiatives rely on a conception of general education that celebrates the triumphalist idea of an America (understood not only as liberal democracy but also capitalism) and the West that "won" the Cold War: the provost’s report makes this clear. General Education, Salins says, "enriches our political system, our society and our culture. The modern American university can be one of the most effective institutions available to support the nation’s ideals of free inquiry and democratic access to prosperity and power"—especially in an age of fractious ethnic conflict and uneasy development of democratic and freemarket principles. In other words, though the way that each initiative celebrates that "idea" points to an apparent contradiction in the current general education debates, it seems increasingly clear that they both rely upon and universalize this idea of America.

In this essay, I hope to elucidate the ways in which the recent SUNY Board of Trustees mandate for general education can be seen as a manifestation of the transformation of the university, and to consider how transdisciplinary pedagogy might meaningfully intervene in that process. My thinking on these issues is enabled by the work of many theorists, particularly Bill Readings’s provocative analysis in The University in Ruins (1996), William Spanos’s genealogy of general education in The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism (1993), and the work of Caren Kaplan, Inderpal Grewal, and Chandra T. Mohanty, among others, to decolonize feminist theory and practice.

This transformation of the university has profound ramifications both for the education of students in U.S. universities as well as the exportation of U.S. knowledge production globally, as Readings powerfully details. He argues that the new quantitative rhetoric of "excellence" has accompanied the transformation of the traditional role of the university as a consequence of the decline of the nationstate and the subsequent disappearance of a "national culture." For Readings, this transformation is basically complete, so that a nationalistic ideology no longer operates in the university. I would suggest, based on recent general education reform initiatives across the U.S. in the midlate 1990s, that his conclusions are premature, though I believe he was right about the direction of the transformation. I do, however, completely agree with his comment that the transformation in North American universities is "part of the process of Americanization [that] cannot be understood as simply the expansion of U.S. cultural hegemony.... ‘Americanization’ in its current form is a synonym for globalization ... that recognizes that globalization is not a neutral process". The documents from SUNY since 1995 would suggest that reactionary nationalism as well as the instrumentalist logic of corporate "accountability and efficiency" are the foundations of the General Education proposal mandated in December 1998 by the Board of Trustees.


(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)