A more liberal education

General education requirements restrict a truly free learning environment and detract from their intended purpose

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter written December 26, 1820, expressed his hope that the University he was creating would “be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.” He wished to educate the youth of Virginia and beyond in a “broad and liberal and modern” fashion. Many people will cite the preceding quotes in support of the general education program at the University, as validation of competency and degree requirements.

In my opinion, these people are missing the point. I love this University, and I respect the decisions that have been made in structuring our curriculum. I admire that we aim to endow every graduate with a strong liberal arts education. I do not think, however, that general education requirements are the most effective means by which to achieve this goal. I would propose, not only for our University but for all institutions of higher learning, a complete lack of general education requirements — with the one caveat that the writing requirement remains intact — much like Brown University has implemented with its Open Curriculum. When Thomas Jefferson wrote of the freedom of the human mind, he meant it in the most literal, idealistic sense. No limits should be imposed on our inherent curiosity and our predisposed interests. General education requirements, while they may encourage broad study, fail to encourage passionate study or even to cultivate an appreciation for what broadness in education can offer.

Proponents of the general education system argue that undergraduates need time to explore various interests before they are expected to commit to a degree program, and to some extent I agree. I know that personally, I have changed dramatically since arriving at the University, and taking classes in a wide variety of departments during my first semester facilitated that change and growth. However, I entered college with a multitude of interests already. I was intrigued by more topics than I could ever logically study in four years’ time. Degree programs typically require between 30 and 45 credit hours, while students need a total of 120 to graduate. Rather than dictating that an additional 46 credits be accounted for by way of requirements, why not allow students to control their own academic discovery? Broadness for its own sake will accomplish little — if students are not engaged in what they are learning, their education was for naught. Additionally, with the credits and time we would gain from eliminating the degree requirements, we could more easily pursue a second major or specialize more fully in our chosen area of study. We could learn comprehensively, but with our own interests in mind. Pre-medical students, for example, could take classes in bioethics, the history of medicine, philosophy and public policy to better understand their eventual occupation. Those 46 credits could result in a tangible accomplishment rather than simply the completion of a haphazard cluster of assigned classes, especially if students were to take advantage of the University’s strong advising network. Not everyone arrives at college with a concrete plan, but most do arrive with interests and unanswered questions that they are determined to solve. General education requirements may stifle that inspired state of being.

My main opposition to general education requirements of any sort stems from the fact that it’s virtually impossible to define what exactly an educated adult ought to know. The selection of certain areas of study over others, while it may seem logical, is arbitrary at best and completely misguided at worst. Why is it, for instance, that math and science comprise almost one-fourth of the degree requirements at the University? In modern society, have skills in math and science gained value due to an advent of new technologies? Yes. But does that value still hold if you’re a theatre major? No; in the field of acting, this knowledge has very little marketability. We assign importance to particular disciplines based on societal and personal preferences. If you asked me, for instance, I would say that any well-educated adult should understand the basic structure of the government and economic policy, be able to explain various scientific theories, and be capable of communication through writing. But I say these things from a biased perspective; I am an intended Government major, pre-med, and I write for a newspaper as my main extracurricular. The type of disciplines that will be beneficial to one student based on his personal values and life aspirations may be useless for another.

In closing, I’ll offer another perspective. Technically speaking, we are adults. We should be trusted to handle our own educational decisions. Beyond that, we — and possibly our parents — are the ones paying for our educations. We are paying to be here and to take classes, so in return for our patronage we should receive intellectual fulfillment. College shouldn’t feel like high school — four years of fulfilling graduation requirements and checking classes off a list. College is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to indulge completely in your academic fascinations to be in an environment where your ambitions will be fostered and your primary responsibility is to yourself and your studies.

General education requirements are simply not conducive to maintaining that atmosphere.

Ashley Spinks’s column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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