I will agree that the intent of general education is a great idea and something that could create better informed and more aware students with a wealth of knowledge rather than one-dimensional robots. However, in practice, with stressed out college students and loosening Gen Ed standards, the formalization has lost its luster.
Signing up for Gen Ed classes is no longer about expanding one’s worldview. Instead, as I’ve seen in my own personal experiences and interactions with friends, picking these classes has become more about adding “easy” and “non-stressful” classes than gaining a true holistic education.
When I picked my classes for this semester, I read through the options for my science requirement to find classes that might interest me and then looked at the professors’ Rate My Professor page and asked upperclassmen friends to gain a better understanding of what I would be getting myself into. After consulting, many of the classes that I considered were ruled out because they had poor reviews that weren’t even tangential to the curriculum itself. Instead, I opted to choose a science class that reviews and a few friends had pegged as one of the easiest ones available.
Now, a month into the semester, I find this class unfulfilling mainly because I placed more weight on the circumstances of the classes as opposed to the actual classes.
This post isn’t a preachy instructional anecdote about how, in my second semester of college, I learned that if I am trying to gain something from classes, I need to take unnecessary challenges.
The anecdote was a way to illustrate a problem with Gen Ed requirements and to open up a conversation seeking to better understand who is at fault: students who are too busy with their own majors to take on unnecessary stress and costly credits, the universities who mandate these requirements, or the professors who make these 000 or 100 level classes more time consuming than they should be.
Before we analyze this issue any further, we need to define what general education was intended to be.
General Education’s origins can be traced back to the Renaissance, when it was viewed as a way to create well-versed and responsible citizens. I think students do need at least a rudimentary higher level background in writing, speaking, critical reading, and civics. These four topics/skills are what I believe are the foremost important things needed to create well-versed and responsible citizens. However, for the most part, they’re addressed during high school. AP credits can get you out of these core classes but many students don’t enter college a semester or two ahead. Because of this, more often than not, students who did not take AP or IB versions of these subjects are retaking classes and arguably wasting their time.
For instance, in regards to civics, taking two years of American history or at least cramming over 250 years into a class is a pretty national standard. Do you really need to either relearn or take more history in college to become truly educated about our past? I said civics because I wanted to tie in aspects of the government and economics so students know how the country functions. Neither of those subjects are nationally mandated so I do see a need for students to learn about them while in college.
The skills that I listed are in almost every Gen Ed curriculum regardless of major or school, however, what about the excess classes that are tacked on top of these, such as social sciences, advanced math, natural sciences, and foreign languages?
General education is a great asset for students who aren’t sure what direction they want to take their education and equally helpful for those who want to learn “for the sake of learning [as] a kind of fulfillment” as Christopher B. Nelson, the president of St. John’s College explains in an article about the need for broad, comprehensive education and curious desire in students.
However, I don’t see the value in schools forcing engineering students pay to take art classes and art majors to pay for math and physics.
Brown University may be the most prominent school not to have a core curriculum for students. Ironically, Brown is a premier liberal arts college, a division of studies usually at the backbone of pushing for core requirements. Brown with its trademark Open Curriculum captures what I believe to be the principal facet of a liberal arts education: the “unparalleled freedom to shape their own education and to make their college curricula a more thorough reflection of their own interests and aspirations” as the university’s web site explains. And the success of Brown alumni shows that this approach to education isn’t misleading or depriving students.
The only caveat with this liberal approach to liberal arts is that it assumes every student will have the same passion for learning, but at the end of the day, each person’s education, career, and life are what he or she makes of it. I just like the idea of students not being confined to a system that places restrictions and requirements on their education and takes up time and money.
In my last three civic issue posts, I will attempt to break down each category that I listed earlier about who could be at fault for this warped version of Gen Eds or if anyone is at fault for that matter.