Studia Generalia

In the history of European universities, the earlier prestigious universities licensed by the Holy Roman Empire based their programmes of study on an eclectic menu that involved students covering several branches of learning, mostly in the humanities. As knowledge became more specialised and disciplines began to operate more within strict boundaries this tradition was eroded and eventually disappeared.

However, when I was a student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s, the college still had a programme called ‘General Studies’ for which students could register and which followed the above traditional model. While the course was popular, the perception at the time was that it was selected typically by weaker students and that it lacked discipline-specific academic rigour. Despite strong student opposition it was eventually abolished.

Of course since the late 1970s our understanding of knowledge has shifted, and the growth of interdisciplinarity might suggest to some at least that a reconsideration of the case for General Studies (in any university) would make sense – though perhaps with more content from science and technology. The argument might be that we often force students to specialise before they are ready to make this kind of choice and before they are properly educated in what one might call general knowledge. It may be that the time is right for us to have another look at General Studies.

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3 Comments on “Studia Generalia”

  1. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    Well, the “discipline-specific ” studies in our universities appear to have produced a generation or two of technocrats who have run western economies, societies, and to some extent governments into the ground over the last 30 years. The myopia, ideology, rationalisations, denialism, pedantry, and simple incompetence on display by those in very senior positions across the globe is quite breathtaking at times.

    But the worst of it all is the lack of leadership. I doubt all those “character building” and leadership seminars in our business schools really compare to sitting in introductory history course in preparing peopel for making and taking tough decisions. I doubt too that cost/benefit studies are really a replacement for a simple module in philosophy.

    Something tells me that the university graduates of the 1900s would have made a batter fist of tackling disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the eurozone banking crisis. Something tells me that they would have had a better idea of what they were dealing with as well, having been exposed to so many ideas and events outside their ordinary experiences.

    Then again, they still have reasonably broad curricula in the US to my knowledge, so perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree.

  2. cormac Says:

    Here at Harvard, all the undergraduates do a certain amount of general studies, as in most American universities. I don’t know much about it, except that some of the science courses are very popular amongst the humanities students!
    It seems a really good idea, I don’t know why most European universities don’t offer this

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