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Columnist Clash: Are general education requirements valuable?

Studying a broad range of subject matter is a key feature of the college experience. How should those topics be explored?
Image by Ava Weinreis

No matter your major, you have probably found yourself taking classes that don’t seem to apply much to your area of study. Maybe you are a communications major learning about the biology of the human ear or a computer science major getting some in-depth class discussions about Russian literature. 

These may seem like strange circumstances, but the University of Minnesota has deemed them necessary. Should they be?

Omar’s Opinion:

General education classes aren’t nearly as bad as people think, and for the most part, they can be good compliments for your degree.

Look at the catalog of writing-intensive and public-speaking courses. If you’re not a good writer or if you crumple under the pressure of speaking publicly, then of course people would find these classes exasperating. Couple that with a degree that’s seemingly detached from your course, and the conclusion becomes natural: these useless classes are a cheap trick to force students to take more classes.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Virtually every major here requires, if not demands, a competent level of writing proficiency. In the real world, you need to be able to express yourself. You need to be able to write down your experiences, share your thoughts and generally try to not sound like a total robot when you communicate with other human beings!

What about other gen eds? Is biology, art, philosophy or whatever my advisor throws at me worth it? 

I’d argue yes, they can be worth it. Engineers of the famous 500-Series-Shinkansen bullet train, for example, drew heavy inspiration from kingfishers, resulting in incredible leaps in efficiency. Steve Jobs credits his typography courses with inspiring many of Apple’s most enduring and classic designs. 

I could go on and on. Nevertheless, it’s clear that no matter what field you’re in, gen eds are not insignificant and they’re not useless. 

Kelly’s Opinion:

The American education system’s core curriculum is generalized — meaning that the first twelve years of standard public schooling consists of a broad range of coursework that spans a diverse range of topics. Ideally, this is the time for students to find their knack for some kind of general subject matter. Maybe you’re better at English than math or prefer science over history. 

Perhaps, if this time were considered more of a legitimate academic odyssey, students would feel more inclined to treat their primary and high school years as a chance to explore topics they may want to study on a deeper level in college.

Instead, your freshman and sophomore years of college are treated as Secondary School 2: Electric Boogaloo. Except this time, you’re charged thousands of dollars for a top-level overview of the same science you probably learned in high school. 

Spoiler alert: mitochondria are still the powerhouse of the cell. 

One way students have creatively circumvented this challenge is to earn their Associate’s Degree through dual enrollment programs in high school or by attending a community college before transferring to a four-year university. The popular use of these loopholes indicates course requirements are ineffective. 

It is important to diversify the materials you study over the course of your college career. Unfortunately, that isn’t what general course requirements accomplish. By uniformly dictating the material that all students must study, they ostracize non-traditional students and discourage them from pursuing their degrees. If you need an entry-level writing course, take the entry-level writing course. Not all students do, nor should they be forced to. Isn’t that the whole point of graded assignments to begin with? 

Student populations are diverse and complex. Degree requirements should support that reality, not punish it. 

Omar’s Rebuttal:

While I agree with some of your main points, I disagree with your argument that general education requirements run counter to a productive college experience. 

Many gen ed courses here offer valuable insights into specific subject areas that would otherwise be totally inaccessible to students who just take high-school-level courses. Compared to the halfheartedly engaged teachers we’ve all had in high school, professors here are oftentimes deeply involved with high-level research in their respective subject areas. 

I took oceanography, thinking it would be a totally frivolous use of my time. Instead, I was taken aback by how rich and fascinating the content of the course was. It wasn’t just a typical earth science course either. Unlike the classes I took in high school, this gen ed managed to imbue such a well-covered subject with an exciting array of tangible and engaging bodies of research. If I wasn’t dead set on electrical engineering beforehand, I would have seriously considered switching to studying ocean sciences.

However, I do have to concede that this is not the case for some gen eds. Some gen eds, like physics and biology, function exactly how you described them earlier — as a top-down view of high school courses many have taken. 

I do want to reiterate that I still believe in the value of taking a diverse array of gen eds. They can serve as unexpected inspirations for many creative endeavors later in our careers. In light of your valid points, I think it would be fair to propose that instead of forcing students to take gen eds, it would be more appropriate to offer students the option to “test out” of classes they may have already taken in high school.

It would allow students to chug through degree requirements at their own pace while maintaining the spirit of a faithful academic journey that the current status quo fails to achieve.

Kelly’s Rebuttal:

A diverse array of college courses enhances the experience of earning your degree. Mandating the material that you must study does not. 

While I understand your perspective on the value of that diversity, I don’t think it is conducive to the growing number of non-traditional students who are deciding to earn their degree later in life. 

Dedicating 40 credit hours of your time at university to introductory courses that contain high volumes of assignments and meet up to four times a week is an unnecessary barrier to earning a college degree. Instead, I insist that open exploration across a wide range of materials that is more customizable to a student’s interests and capacity is more beneficial than simply meeting arbitrary qualifications in the interest of standardization. 

While general education credits are not without their merits, they detract from deeper learning that could be explored by students who do know what they are interested in. We should not punish that insight.

What do you think?

Should general education remain in your degree program? Or should a more personally specialized approach be taken? Voice your opinion in the comments, on X or maybe just shout it into the void!

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