Advising and registration for summer and fall semesters has just finished, so I’ve been spending a lot of time talking and thinking about general education requirements. In particular, I’ve been thinking about one question: why? What’s the point of general education requirements? What are they good for? What should students get out of them?
In the US, most colleges (up to four-year schools) and universities (schools with graduate programs) require that all students take some classes spread across a range of disciplines. These general education programs vary from school to school – some are very specific, but many enforce some sort of breadth.
For example, Fort Lewis College’s current general education program requires:
- 2 writing courses
- 1 math course
- 2 natural science courses (one with a lab)
- 2 arts and humanities courses
- 1 history course
- 1 social science course
- 1 physical education course
- 2 upper-level interdisciplinary Education for Global Citizenship courses
All but the P.E. course and the Education for Global Citizenship courses are part of Colorado’s statewide general education program, imposed by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to ensure that students could transfer more easily between Colorado institutions. (That means that there is currently no plan to change them.)
My undergrad institution had similar requirements: 3 science and math, 3 social science, 2 humanities, 2 arts and literature, 2 physical education, plus a writing requirement that could be fulfilled in a number of different classes, a foreign language competency requirement, and a swimming test. (A lot of people seemed to put off the swimming test until senior year.)
I know that some other countries (the UK, for example) don’t have these kinds of breadth requirements (and that means that their graduates generally have gone deeper into their field of study than American undergrads usually do). Personally, I liked my gen ed classes – it was fun to get out of the science way of thinking and listen to jazz, or learn how to draw with soft charcoal, or study the history of a different place. (And although I wouldn’t have characterized economics as “fun,” I probably learned more in those two courses than in any other pair of courses in college.) But then, I went to a liberal arts college on purpose, because I wanted to be a science major but liked other stuff too. (And I probably would have taken those classes and more, whether or not there were requirements.) Some people are much more focused than I am, though. What do general education requirements do for them?