English, Department of


Date of this Version



ERIC/Higher Education, Research Report No.8, 1977


Prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. 20036

Published by the American Association for Higher Education, One Dupont Circle, Suite 780, Washington, D.C. 20036


This paper examines the distinctions between general education and education for a career, with a view to synthesizing the literature and presenting salient problems. General education can be defined in several ways. It is defined here as education that puts a person in touch with the main outlines of knowledge available to a historical period or a given culture. Theoretically, education is general if it has no one specific vocation as its end and no one specific discipline or partisan viewpoint as its specialty. By way of example, the medieval quadrivium and trivium can be viewed as "general education," in that they provided the clerk with most of what was known about the ancient world, the Bible, linguistics, and number-related subjects. Charles William Eliot's elective system was general education in the sense that what could be elected included courses in most of what was thought to be known in the period (Hawkins 1972). And Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler's "great books" plan was general education in the sense that it assumed crucial knowledge, apart from vocational knowledge, to be contained in a certain library of seminal books, books which all serious scholars would have to read (Adler 1967; Hutchins 1936, Ch. 3; Hutchins 1950; Boyer and Kaplan, March 1977, pp. 22-24).

The real issues of this paper are: (1) Under what educational circumstances has it been or is it possible to give people a chance to construct a conception of "career" or "life's work" or "useful social service," while giving them an understanding of their world and a critical sense? (2) What are the circumstances that make "education for work" (or life's work) turn into what people see as "training the young like animals to perform certain definite external duties?" (3) Concomitantly, what are the circumstances that make "general education" turn into education that does not "prepare people to cope with accelerating change and obsolescence," prepare them to "function in society," "develop a sense of meaning in work," or "make a person's life work possible, satisfying, and meaningful?" To answer these questions it may be useful to look at the history of liberal and then general education in the Western World and of the development of capacity for work and for career in people in the same culture.