Rethinking general education requirements

 by Hans Thedinga, Contributor (Civil Engineering Major)

Imagine you’re back in kindergarten. It’s free time and you have chosen to play with blocks. To your surprise, before you are able to begin, the teacher comes over and insists you must play with the fake food and dishes in the toy house. You don’t understand but nevertheless obey, even though you will learn nothing from it. The teacher sees you getting bored and insists you keep at it for a while longer.

She says she has chosen another activity for you: playing in the sand box. This doesn’t appeal to you either. Once again, not wanting to be a bad kid, you comply.

An analogous situation occurs at universities with general education requirements. Students are forced to take classes on subjects they have little to no interest in and therefore will get little to nothing out of.

Why is this?

Perhaps the most common explanation of the purpose of general education is to “make a student more well-rounded by allowing them to obtain a wider range of knowledge and a broader perspective of the world,” stated by Gabrielle Nicolet in “What is the Purpose of Taking General Classes for a College Degree?”, a post on www.ehow.com.

This sounds reasonable at first. But what happens when a person is in a class that doesn’t interest them?

Since failure will only result in repeating the class, they are motivated to perform various required tasks — homework, tests, projects — until they pass. They do not need to learn anything as long as they complete these required tasks.

In fact, it’s possible to complete a course to the professor’s liking and still retain nearly no useful information.

Why should anything else be expected when a person has little to no interest in the subject and only works for a grade? Clearly, there’s no enriching of the mind here.

“What Will They Learn?”, a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, claims general education can be used to further knowledge and fill in gaps from high school courses.

While furthering one’s knowledge is often a good thing, attempting to force it upon students who don’t want or need it is unproductive.

Once the specifics are actually examined, blanket statements claiming that “General education courses create a community of intellectual discourse that spills over beyond the classroom and into dormitories, dining halls and the many cafes that surround the campus,” as stated on the website What Will They Learn, swiftly fall apart.

Obviously, music students unwillingly forced to take chemistry, engineering students unwillingly forced to take literature and Japanese language students unwillingly forced to take calculus aren’t engaging in relevant intellectual discourse outside of class — if at all.

General education courses can even fail when a student is interested in the subject.

For example, every bit of history education through high school convinced me it was a subject I would never be interested in. What changed my mind though was a discovery made outside of class regarding alternative views of history.

Columbus was presented as a hero during my early schooling, but I read how amoral he was in Howard Zinn’s book “A People’s History of the United States.” Such reading made me excited about taking a university history course.

Unfortunately, American history, as it was presented to me, in a college classroom provided another dose of disappointment. Instead of exploring a topic that now interested me, I was coerced into learning whatever facts the professor deemed worthy.

Needless to say, our educations would actually be richer without general course requirements. Hundreds of hours could be replaced with any number of more valuable activities. The financial burden of college would be reduced by as much as tens of thousands of dollars.

This would allow more people to further their educations.

Should students be allowed more choice in courses they take that don’t relate to their majors?

Maybe such classes should be dropped entirely. Either of these two choices would significantly improve students’ lives.

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