Seeking a New ‘Golden Age’of General Education

“What do you think?” It’s a question most working in academe probably take for granted. But for others, it’s transformative.For Geoffrey Harpham, visiting scholar and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and former president and director of the National Humanities Center, the question captures the essence of a higher education, or at least what a higher education should be.

It’s also the titular anecdote in his book on general education from the University of Chicago Press.What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education  takes its name from a conversation Harpham once had with a scholar during a campus visit. Harpham lost the man’s card, and his name probably isn’t even Mr. Ramirez (Harpham’s memory fails here), but the life story that he shared stuck and grew legs.

As Harpham tells it, Ramirez was born in Cuba and moved to the U.S. more than 50 years ago as a teenage refugee, alone and broke. After a few years doing odd jobs to survive and learning enough English to get a GED, he enrolled in a community college.

He took a literature course only as a requirement and found himself not so much studying Shakespeare’s sonnets as keeping his head down in class to avoid having to participate. But one day, the instructor approached him directly and asked, “Mr. Ramirez, what do you think?”

The moment was tortuous, the man said, as he had “no thoughts at all, and nothing to say.” But the moment was also glorious, in retrospect, as “it was the first time anybody had asked me that question.”

The spoiler here — and the point — is that that Cuban refugee with “no thoughts at all” about Shakespeare went on to become a professor emeritus of comparative literature somewhere. His life trajectory may not have been set by that question in that moment, but what if it was? And, to Harpham’s larger argument, what were the social and other outside forces acting on that moment?