I’ve been wrestling with a way to address a nagging question regarding the reason for undergraduate general education (G.E.s) courses. Upon finishing Divergent, a parallel between the dystopia described in the novel and the way in which we view education came to my mind.
What makes the society in the book dystopian? What makes Tris an interesting protagonist?
For the book’s morale to work we must implicitly reject the society described in the novel and, in turn, cheer for Tris. Unearthing the grounds for that reaction can lead us to a better understanding of our values, the byproduct of which is partly reflected in the structure of education.
I’ll tread lightly here so as to not give anything away in case you plan on reading it. There will be no spoilers.
But read the book because it’s fun.
The fictional society organizes itself into five specific factions or groups. Governing, education, military and so forth are all separate, and once one chooses to become a member of the faction they commit for life. Moreover, the people of the factions limit communication to others within the faction. To determine which faction/group one is best suited for all youth undergo a psychological test.
When the test is administered to Tris, the protagonist, her results are inconclusive. That poses a serious problem for the dynamics of society. Why? Because Tris demonstrates the ability to fit into more than one faction and thus her very existence undermines the supposed governing of the society. Tris’s capacity for thinking extends beyond their rigid notion. She is unique. One might consider her a Nietzschean “overman.”
Tris is warned to keep the inconclusive results to herself. She must join a faction and pretend to be suited solely for that group. A tension carries throughout the book about this need to suppress her authentic self.
There are other interesting themes to this book, but I’d like to isolate this depiction of the hero. She could represent the human spirit, one that refuses to be narrowed by an imposed definition. Why choose just one way to exist when we are capable of so much more?
And this brings me to the aforementioned parallel: Why do classes outside of one’s university major matter? What are those pesky G.E.s for?
In a word: Thinking.
Our concept of “useful” knowledge needs to be broader. The assumption is that education and training are one and the same. When students ask “Why do I need to know this? It will have nothing to do with my job” I don’t begrudge them for their questioning, but I am curious as to where the momentum of this line of inquiry springs. Not stepping outside one’s major seems akin to tethering one’s life to a specific skill, a not too distant step from the fictional factions of Divergent. However, the idea that learning an array of subjects and career-life are discrete from each other is an illusion. Writing, communicating, knowledge of research, how to discern arguments all contribute to one’s overall being. Thinking is a skill. Indeed, thinking is the skill.
Forgive me for this shocking claim: A university education is not strictly for getting a job. The hiring potential of the graduate is the byproduct but not necessarily the only function of studying. Taking courses in the sciences and the humanities increases one’s capacity for examining the world from different angles.
Again, thinking is a skill. It is a discipline. Most “skills” will be obsolete within ten years with the exception of thinking; therefore the ability to adapt, re-evaluate, and meet a changing world head on is extremely important.
It is true that one of my G.E. students in Philosophy will not breeze through a job interview by re-telling Pascal’s Wager or Aristotle’s Virtue Theory. But what the students do gain in the class is the practice of analyzing premises and conclusions argued by brilliant philosophers. (I only use the subject as an example and do not mean to exclude the importance of other studies.) Engaging in studies other than one’s major does not create a deficit but enhances thinking. As with an athlete who sometimes practices yoga to strengthen their overall physical self, a student enrolled in G.E.s becomes intellectually stronger.
The counter position of studying only one subject because it is assumed that said subject will be practiced for the rest of one’s life actually resembles the organization of Divergent. To be trained to think one particular way for one particular job is unrealistic, boring, and the plot of a dystopia.
Aristotle wrote that the life of contemplation was the means to excellence and happiness. Learning is so much more than facilitating the capacity for a singular function. It should be part of growing and enjoying life. It is human. Recall a moment when someone told you an interesting fact or you read something that caught your attention. “Oh. I didn’t know that,” you respond. Suddenly you light up at the new knowledge. What you really mean is “Oh. I didn’t know that I didn’t know that.” It’s delightful. Your experience of the world opens up.
Besides, contemplation outside of one field allows for people to connect with others. What will you chat about at dinner parties? How will you be involved in your community? How will you vote? What will you do when you retire? Unlike the factions of Divergent that disengage with other groups, the professions of the real world overlap on several levels.
The character Tris embodies that beautiful non-defining aspect of being human. By resisting definition she exemplifies a core value, namely, we carry the potential to transcend, to change, to be curious, to be in constant flux. The “usefulness” of curiosity is without limit. It is because Tris does not desire to fit into a category despite the society’s rules that we root for her. In short, she is a badass.