Professing Education
Dec,2002.Vol 1.No.1 P.11-P.13

Professing Education As Generating

Kenneth A. McClelland

Brock University

The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest for life, by uniting the young and the old in an imaginative consideration of learning….A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact; it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energizing as the poet of our dreams and as the architect of our purposes.

— Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education

To get closer to the spirit of what Whitehead is talking about and fill out what I think is integral to professing education, I would like to introduce the notion of what I call the generating generalist. What does it mean to be a generating generalist within today's academy?

To put it simply, a generating generalist is someone who loves learning, who is imaginatively enlivened to ideas, both great ideas from the past as well as those being generated in the present, and who wishes to impart this love to his or her students. Such a love draws the student out, patiently and with care, into a world of imaginative possibility where future horizons are projected in hope and in deepening thoughtfulness. It is fair to say that taking our young undergraduates and setting them on a fast track to narrow specialization does a great disservice to their generative potential. It closes the world in on them too quickly and suffocates the very kind of love and zest for life and learning that is requisite to any kind of healthy specialization. Our young are not yet full-fledged adults, they are fledglings, and if for us adults, as the poet Wordsworth said, "the world is too much with us; late and soon" it should not be too much with our young. For the generating generalist, as for the unformed student, the world is both half real and half imagined—we are in a constant process of becoming.

As is also implied, I do not wish to vilify the notion of specialization. This is unreasonable and too much critical energy has already been wasted going down this path. A generating generalist will engage a broad spectrum of ideas from a broad range of disciplines. To love learning is to constantly grow and broaden one's horizons. A generating generalist will be a dedicated amateur in many areas of learning, but he or she is generating, after all, and an integral part of generating is seeking clarification and deeper knowledge about that area which really piques one's interest and sparks one's imagination. Specialization is not precluded by an initial and ongoing generalist thrust, but is, rather, a quite natural outcome. It means simply that specialization is rooted in a more broadly meaningful temporal context.

It is my contention that each discipline in the academy now suffers from a sort of professionalized paralysis. Being within the field of Education, I hold out great hope that this discipline might offer the best potential for reinvigorating the better spirit of what I mean by the generating generalist. To be sure, the discipline of education is caught in the same rut of specialization, but it is also different as a discipline.

For the discipline of Education to pull away from the isolationist and rarefied discourses that have become the mainstay of most other disciplines, it needs to recover a generalist spirit that once was the cornerstone of education in the Humanities. It seems to me that the discipline of Education is in an even better position than the Humanities to begin this revival. This is because of the very inter-disciplinarity of the field of Education itself. Scholars within the Education field have fussed for a very long time (most of the last century in fact) over how and in what ways they might stake out their own disciplinary identity. Identity formation was a matter, like that in the sciences, of focusing, with less emphasis put on expanding one's educational horizons. The spirit of liberal learning (comprised early on of generalist scholars, but not necessarily generating ones) slowly receded as professors of Education attempted to carve out a disciplinary niche, something that could readily be identified as the discipline of Education. This was, of course, given the inherent inter-disciplinarity of the field, along with its connections to broader notions of public schooling, a rather schizophrenic activity. More importantly it was taking Education as a discipline into the same trap of specialization that had ensnarled other disciplines.

In not recognizing their unique position and potential as generating generalists, based on the field's natural inter-disciplinarity, professors of Education instead began to ape the already rarefied and highly specialized discourses of the Social Sciences (especially Psychology) which themselves had for some time been aping the long entrenched specialized discourses of the "hard" Sciences.

Unfortunately, now, only professionalism and narrow specialization is left as the sustaining motivation within the academy, and it is virtually a Herculean task to intervene upon it. But the Herculean task needs to be embarked upon and it starts by highlighting the virtues of the generating generalist, which in simple terms means starting with the rather modest recognition that the human condition preceded the curriculum and all the disciplinary divisions. This is a modest recognition that entails a complex reorganizing and reprioritizing within the university as a whole. Indeed, it is our moral imperative, as professionals, to reconnect to our undergraduates, to engender the vitality and energizing potential necessary to becoming an educated person. The love of learning should be, for our students, the `zest for life.' The discipline of Education, as I have been arguing, is well positioned to take the lead. It is so well positioned primarily because its indigenous inter-disciplinarity and diversity retains broad custodial and progressive impulses that no other discipline can attest to in quite the same way. Each of these impulses is necessary to sustaining the idea of a generating generalist, where past, present, and future are vitally interfused with educative import.

Yet, inter-disciplinarity is itself merely an access point to something far more deep and profound. To be a generating generalist does not preclude specialization. It only puts the horse back in front of the cart. More importantly, it reopens a mode of contact with the young and unformed that all those who profess to profess education need to reconnect to if they wish to avoid becoming pickled in their own professional juices. For our young undergrads are the vital points of contact with the larger world. The Latin for profess is profiteri and it means to declare publicly, and that is what we professors of education do (is it not?). This public declaring is an aspect of an intimate relationship with those who we have the responsibility of educating or drawing out (educere) into responsible, imaginative, and enlivened citizenship.

Finally, then, to be a generating generalist is to generate communication lines more broadly and make the idea of community a reality. It can begin within Faculties of Education because diversity is the sine qua non of that discipline. The generating generalist will seek collaboration with one's colleagues rather than (friendly) isolation from them. This can set a tone and example for our undergraduate students, to let them see that specialization is an outcome inextricably tied to a process of general forming. That is, the product of a good education is intimately bound up in the process of good education. Let us hope that the generating generalist might start to evolve.


Whitehead, A.N. (1929, 1955). The aims of education. New York: New American Library