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A general method

General education requirements provide academic direction for undergraduates

Ashley Spinks’s Dec. 2 column, “A more liberal education,” argues that the general education
requirements here at the University are misguided and unnecessary. The crux of her argument is that these requirements restrict students from fully exploring their own interests outside or in support of their major, that they are overly subjective in their content and often unnecessary and finally that they indicate a lack of trust in students to act like adults and choose their own classes. In many ways I agree — in my college search a heavy load of core classes was off-putting. But I do not think that the idea of general education is a bad thing either, especially in a moderate form. I believe in the basic philosophy embodied by general requirements and a liberal arts education: that all fields of study, regardless of major, profession or interests, will be useful and worthwhile later in life.

The author’s first point is that she did not need core classes to engage in a variety of fields, because she was already interested in various subjects and would have been more excited by self-directed academic exploration. She notes that the credit hours consumed by these classes could be used for an additional major or for classes that relate to but are not part of an intended major, such as bioethics or public policy for pre-med students. These concerns are valid, but a creative approach to required classes can alleviate them. Just because a class is a general requirement does not mean it cannot also be applied to a major. By creating an overlap between general and major requirements, it is certainly possible to add a major or minor without undue difficulty.

And requirements can be just as conducive, in my opinion, as an open curriculum to taking the peripheral classes that do not directly contribute to a major. A pre-med student seeking to support their education in a variety of fields should simply fulfill each requirement with that goal in mind: public policy could go toward social sciences, bioethics for humanities, etc. And with this approach, students would be unable to avoid certain fields that they dislike even though these fields may have unexpected applications in their field of study. Although this may not be as “inspiring” to students, it is helpful preparation for life, where no job will be completely satisfying and enjoyable all the time.

Ashley’s second point is that general requirements are overly arbitrary and can often be unnecessary and inapplicable to future careers. She specifically balks at the fact that almost a quarter of the University’s requirements are in math and science and does not see how a major such as theater would find those courses useful. Here I strongly disagree. For starters, I think less than 25 percent of general classes being math and science is way too low. These fields are arguably the most directly applicable to adult life. Regardless of your profession, you need to be able to balance a checkbook, make smart purchases, calculate tips, budget travel time, convert measurements, adjust recipes and generally use math and logic to solve problems. Even the worst cooks need to know how much water to add to their ramen. Science can help you eat healthier, understand how and why you make decisions, use technology with some comprehension of how it works, avoid illness, explain natural phenomena that have both direct and indirect impacts on your life and deal with numerous other universal concerns. As a citizen, being able to talk intelligently about scientific issues is necessary to making informed decisions.

This general applicability is true of all fields — having a variety of knowledge gives you an enhanced and more complete perspective for approaching any problem in your career or your life in general. My grandfather planned to major in journalism but became a chemical engineer. Despite the change, he still values his education in writing, because he was able to express complex concepts in his work more efficiently and clearly than many of his colleagues. It is not always obvious what skills will be needed or helpful in the future.

The author’s last point is that as adults, we deserve more respect and freedom in our academic choices. This is fair, but also overlooks the fact that just like core classes, some aspects of life are unavoidable. Paying bills is unavoidable. Being able to communicate effectively is useful in any field. Economic and environmental issues will have direct impacts on your life regardless of your understanding of each subject. Being forced to tackle all of these challenges in coursework, regardless of how boring, difficult and unnecessary they may seem, is preparation for a world where the next obstacle will not always be the one we anticipated. By preventing self-induced informational isolation, core requirements make us more ready to enter into a complex world with more than a few requirements of its own.

Forrest Brown’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at f.brown@cavalierdaily.com.


Published December 5, 2012 in Opinion

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