Requirements aren’t tasty, but they’re filling

by By Karrie

One of the biggest gripes on most college campuses today is that students are forced to take too many general education requirements. Many students forget that having a degree does not mean “well trained in a field of work.” It means you are well-rounded, can think critically, can express yourself and are able to draw from various disciplines to make informed choices. People expect college graduates to be driven and excited.
Successful people rarely gripe that they must learn something. Try asking yourself why you are here. The simple answer might be that the average college graduate earns $600,000 more during her lifetime than a non-college graduate. It might also be the low unemployment rate of college graduates compared to the national rate. These are the answers of high school guidance counselors, parents and politicians. Forget them.
Remember the sense of awe and wonder you felt as a child? Grasshoppers and butterflies were alien life forms to be collected and studied. You wanted to know why the sky was blue, why people inside the television set were so tiny, where babies came from. The world was new and mysterious.
Some of those mysteries were solved early on, but does that make the world so boring as to justify complaining about general education requirements or taking “filler” classes for easy As? Does knowing why the sky is blue qualify you to dismiss science?
Try pondering something else. How about the late Carl Sagan’s challenge? Can you “know” a grain of salt?
In his book, “Broca’s Brain,” Sagan says, “Consider one microgram of table salt, a speck barely large enough for someone with keen eyesight to make out without a microscope. In that grain of salt there are about 1016 sodium and chlorine atoms.
“This is a one followed by 16 zeros, 10 million-billion atoms. If we wish to know a grain of salt, we must know at least the three-dimensional positions of each of these atoms.”
Sagan goes on to explain that the number of things knowable by the brain at any one time is no more than 1,014 or one hundred trillion, based on the number of neurons and dendrites in the human brain. Dendrites connect neurons with their fellows to form bits of information. This, however, is only 1 percent of the number of atoms of a grain of salt.
Luckily, the positions of atoms in a grain of salt are predetermined and predictable. We can know that each sodium and chlorine atom is positioned in a certain way. Sagan reminds us the universe is understood in the same way. Natural laws make the universe more predictable and understandable.
Humans may brag that they have the largest brains on earth, but a grain of salt can’t fit into them. In order to understand even the tiniest speck of our world, our brains must be exercised by logic and problem solving, creative endeavors. This is how the larger questions are asked and solved, the larger questions like natural laws.
Foreign languages not only open windows to other cultures, but they work the neurons in your brain devoted to logic and higher thinking. Think of foreign sentence structures like math. Words are symbols like numbers, and they must be placed a certain way to make sense and adhere to grammar rules.
Rhetoric and humanities courses develop creativity and clear expression. Logic class is your “bologna-detection kit” (to steal a phrase from Carl Sagan).
How can you claim to know the world without exploring it, without challenging the old ideas you have been lugging around since childhood? Your subconscious knows why you trudge through the snow, lose sleep and pay thousands of dollars to be here. It is driven to learn the why’s and how’s of the world it inhabits.
Even if college is just your ticket to the office of CEO, employers want candidates with sharp logic and communication skills. Says economist Audrey Freedman, “Students should take the toughest courses they can do to develop their logic and reasoning capacity.” They must also express themselves “clearly and persuasively.”
Learning must be continuous throughout life. Everything, including the job market, is changing faster than ever before. An inability to adjust could be fatal to your career and happiness. Take your requirements like bitter medicine. They might not all taste great, but you will be better for having taken them.

This column originally ran on Tuesday in the Daily Iowan of the University of Iowa.