Looking for General Education in a New Global Space of Education

karin L.Karin Lundberg Associate Professor and Chair – Language and Cognition Department

When I first sat down to write this piece, Talking Heads’ question involuntarily surfaced: “How did I get here?” And I felt the urge to pursue the line further. What is the “Once in a Lifetime”-song really about? I went on a search and found more than I had expected: “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half-awake, or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else. We haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, “How did I get here?” (David Byrne, NPR March 27, 2000.) Reflecting on my journey as an educator in a rich, global context where language and communication are at the center of my daily pedagogical “chores”, I walk back and trace the knots that have come to form the intricate web of language and general education which are at the center of my teaching. That David Byrne should use the word unconscious was curious, and the quintessential lament of our failings to stop and ask: “How did I get here?” was another match for my contemplations.

In our exploratory discussions about general education and its role in a globalized teaching and learning environment, we juggle concepts and competences in the effort to create a good fit for a new generation of students. What does it have to do with the “half awake” state of mind mentioned above? General education does indeed mean to rattle the mind, to have the courage and the means to ask questions before unwanted answers fall into your lap. It means to have access to the building blocks necessary to construct an idea of the world where we learn to make connections in order to judge wisely and make informed decisions. As a language educator, my ongoing efforts consist of giving the student the necessary tools to navigate the world in a language other than their own, to communicate content, facts, feelings and opinions. The traditional role of the language educator in the past was a unilateral affair where the instructor taught a “foreign” language and a “foreign” culture to a passive recipient. The methods changed over time, and a number of “experiments” replaced the idea of the student as a “tabula rasa”, a blank slate. Now, the communicative method seemed like a better idea, where “the speech act” became embedded in the teaching and the students became an active part of the process. However, in the teaching context of a diverse, urban college, these efforts provide just half the remedy. The questions remain. Who are the students in front of me? What do they bring in their portmanteau as they join our classrooms? And this is where general education enters the picture.

During my first years at Hostos, I participated in the development of a Freshman Academy, an ambitious project that attempted to incorporate general education skills as part of students’ first year experience. Here I stumbled upon the novel Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, a comic historical novel with an intellectual underpinning about two of the most important figures in science and mathematics, Alexander von Humboldt, and Carl Friedrich Gauss. In the novel, the two men represent different approaches to the world laid out as a humorous account of their life achievements during the first half of the 19th Century. Humorous, because of their view of the world as a place that can be measured, classified and controlled, and different in that Humboldt traveled in space and time to disclose the mysteries of unexplored territories while Gauss remained stationary and discovered a universe of mathematics. Kehlmann’s undertaking became a great best seller and is well worth reading. However, he gave Humboldt less credit than he deserves.

The universal science concept described by Alexander von Humboldt at the beginning of the 19th Century illuminates an approach to knowledge of the world as a network of global interactive, interconnecting links. His writings emphasize inclusion and interplay among cultures and natural phenomena that form a web of intertwined and equally valid “truths” about the world. (Lundberg 2015) It seems that in the new global space of education of today we have finally caught up with Humboldt’s pluralistic ideas of universal interrelationships and shared forms of knowledge. Students from all parts of the world fill our classrooms bringing with them multifaceted perspectives of knowing about the world: different belief systems, different historical contexts, and sociocultural backgrounds. Here it becomes apparent that language alone does not suffice in the effort to communicate differences and build connections.

Yet, we seem to cling to the familiar in pursuing what Kehlmann ridicules: the measuring, mapping and classifying of learning objectives and learning outcomes where in fact, the variables of this diverse teaching environment resist any such a limiting straitjacket. Instead, by inviting our students to be active representatives of diverse discourses, the interconnecting links described by Humboldt, will become more transparent. In turn, productive forms of knowing about the world may enrich current learning objectives and thereby reflect a true global citizenship as it evolves in a new shared space of education.

How do we go about such a global platform of exchange, and how does it fit with our approach to general education and contemporary curricula and course design? In pedagogy, constructivist theories and the method of culturally responsive teaching (Gay 2012) have paved the way for teaching models that put learners in the center by making them active participants in the learning process. Here the instructor guides the process, facilitating inquiry into a subject matter rather than teaching “to” the students. Such methods utilize students’ background knowledge and help them construct knowledge depending on their individual, cultural and social perspectives. Nevertheless, we still need to ask which inquiry and which subject matters will provoke a global network of knowledge within the framework of general education as we face it today. How does one obtain the means to ask the big questions, to form connections between our own experiences and the greater world both past and present. To use Humboldt’s phrase, how do we “shred the veil of the phenomena”? (Humboldt 1845). How do we become aware of the connecting knots in the web of human cultural pursuits and development? Humboldt’s take on the question is that in order to shed light on the familiar, in order to see, we must “venture into the unknown and open ourselves up to distant regions” (Humboldt 1845) that will uncover and help us decode what is strange and foreign. It is through the reflection of ourselves in the foreign that we gain an understanding of our “self” and how we fit within the interconnected world of phenomena. (Lundberg 2015) These questions have guided me in my recent efforts to respond to the skills and the knowledge and experiences readily available in our students.

In the past semester I have piloted a curriculum in a hybrid section of the Intensive ESL Program. It’s conceptualized around the theme “The City in World History.” The goal in this intermediate ESL course is to a) facilitate an understanding of the city as a platform for human development and exchange of goods and ideas and b) to support students’ awareness of by promoting their own understanding, knowledge and experiences as well as to facilitate an exchange of these ideas among the students. The curriculum spans across the Middle East, Asia, Egypt, Europe and the Americas. It takes the students back in time to the Sumerians, through Antiquity, the Renaissance and Industrialism, and concludes with the end of the colonial era. Regarding its general education content, each unit is framed around components of trade and economy, power structures, religious and moral values, the arts, engineering and architecture. Since this is a hybrid course, the students have the chance to immerse themselves outside the classroom in readings and listening exercises, discussion groups and journaling. Students comment, ask questions and reflect on the different perspectives presented on a given topic.

As I observe the students’ contributions, I am intrigued to see exchanges taking place in ways that indeed help answer the question “How did I get here?” Students often remark that they are happy to form connections among themselves and reflect on their backgrounds and past cultural developments. The discussion forum is naturally the platform where these connections become the most transparent. One example that particularly stands out is a discussion centered around the Agricultural or Neolithic Revolution. Students reflected on the consequences of becoming stationary, of producing more food than needed, the first development of towns, power structures and the emergence of writing. It became clear that students had many perspectives on these developments depending on their backgrounds. In fact, they became active contributors of facts and experiences that expanded the knowledge available in the textbook and the video they had watched. Here the students were the providers of knowledge and the ones shedding light on the unfamiliar as we explored remote topics and “distant regions”.

To conclude, this new curriculum that I am piloting has confirmed my ideas of general education as a global platform where students share their perspectives and diverse ways of knowing about the world. As instructors, we help them “shred the veil of the phenomena,” the strange and the foreign, and lead them to construct and organize a meaningful world for themselves in which they are able to recognize their role, impact and potential for change. And maybe that way, after all, David Byrne’s question – “How did I get here?” – will never have to be asked.


Byrne David. (2000) Interview NPR, March 27, 2000 retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2000/03/27/1072131/once-in-a-lifetime

Gay, G. (2012). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teacher

College Press.

Humboldt, A. von (1845). Kosmos. Entwurf einer Physischen Weltbeschreibung. Bd.1. Stuttgart:

Cottascher Verlag.

Humboldt, A. von (1864). Cosmos: A sketch of a physical description of the universe. Vol. I. London: Henry G. Bohn

Kehlmann, Daniel. (2006) Measuring the World. New York: Random House.

Lundberg, Karin. (2015) “Networking Knowledge: Considering Alexander Von Humboldt’s Legacy in a New Shared Space in Education”. International Humboldt Review, HiN – Humboldt im Netz, HiN 30, March, 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.uni-potsdam.de/romanistik/hin/hin12/ette.htm

About the Author

Karin Lundberg, Associate Professor, Chair, department of Language and Cognition

Karin Lundberg holds a Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literatures from New York University and an M.A. in Linguistics, German and English Studies and Second Language Pedagogy from Heidelberg University, Germany. Her research focus covers discourse analysis and discourse comprehension, genre grammar, intellectual history and the relationship between language and knowledge acquisition. Her most recent article: “Considering Alexander von Humboldt’s Legacy in a New Shared Space in Education” explores the relationship between Humboldt’s universal science concept and global citizenship in higher education. She is currently co-chair of the CUNY ESL Discipline Council.

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