Remembrance of General Education Past





Stern taught history at the college level for more than a decade before becoming historian at the JFK Library (from 1977 through 1999). He is the author of numerous articles and Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003) and The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis, (2005), both in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

Normally, I don’t pay much attention to the new year.  Rather, I often chuckle when recalling Jackie Gleason wishing his viewers “a happy changing of the calendar.”  However this year is different:  2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of my graduation from college.  In and of itself that fact may not seem so extraordinary, but for me it has a very special resonance.

I grew up in tough, working-class district of Brooklyn. My father did piecework in a factory that made men’s caps.  My mother was a housewife. They had both dropped out of school after the eighth grade.  There were virtually no books in our apartment.

Like most teenagers, I didn’t work very hard in high school and was unsure about what to do after graduation.  At the end of my junior year my adviser asked me if I planned to go to college.  I told him that it all depended on whether I could get into the New York City public system—which was free.

Fortunately I did, and entered Queens College in 1957.  I was irritated, however, to learn that my freshman and sophomore years would be filled by required general education courses in literature and English, math and science, foreign language, art and music, and history.  I had taken for granted, as did my parents, that I would pursue either medicine or the law and did not understand the purpose of two years of seemingly extraneous requirements.

And, initially, things did not go very well.  My first writing assignment, from Professor Norman Silverstein, was to pick a word from a list on the blackboard (I chose the word cancer), look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, and then write a 1,000 word essay on the derivation and evolution of the word.  When he returned the essay, the grade was an F and a comment on the first page read, “Is English your native language?”  However, Professor Silverstein met with me in his office and patiently showed me how to rewrite each sentence.  I then had to do the assignment over again and the second try resulted in a C. He then met with me for a second rewriting session.  By the end of the course my writing had improved enough to receive an A.

Luckily, I also enrolled in a freshman literature section taught by a dynamic young instructor named Lillian Feder.  She opened my eyes to the world of books and scholarship.  Professor Feder’s skill in bringing literature to life, from Greek drama, through Shakespeare and Albert Camus, had an enormous impact on my imagination.  Likewise, I took introductory history courses with Professor Richard Emery, whose lectures (without any notes—something I have never been able to duplicate) were absolutely riveting.

In addition, the freshman music course required students to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah, which, after hearing it for the first time, became a great favorite.  Finally, the art history survey required students to do a paper on a work of art at the Metropolitan Museum (which I had never visited).  I chose a piece from Old Kingdom Egypt, thus initiating a life-long fascination with the history and culture of that ancient civilization.  

I often wonder how different my quality of life would have been if I had gone to college in today’s setting, when general education has been all but abandoned and students flit from “studies” course to “studies” course, rarely if ever exposed to a common core of knowledge.  A recent survey, for example, revealed that of the nation’s twenty “top” liberal arts colleges, only one has a general education requirement in history or literature.

Over the last decade I made a belated effort to locate and thank the professors who had enriched my life during those first two undergraduate years.  Sadly but not surprisingly, I discovered that they were no longer living.  I had unthinkingly waited far too long to contact them.  This brief essay serves, in a very small way, to try to make up for that oversight.


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Michael Glen Wade - 4/8/2011

Thanks for the memories. Our institution has just gotten the education for the 21st century treatment.


steve f knott - 1/18/2011

Sheldon,

A powerful argument and a moving tribute....