What's the point of general education requirements?

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?

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The best course I took at Fort Lewis in the 1970s was my Spanish lit class, taught in Spanish, but few of us took it. Other than that, I like my ability to do well on the Free Rice famous paintings quiz; I liked taking a variety of courses from profs I never would have encountered if I hadn't been forced to take a broader range of courses. Folk dancing was fun, and I still occasionally launch into a grapevine step (in fact, last week at my high school, in the hallway, I danced while singing Hava Nagila). I'm still annoyed that I missed at least one point on each of my geology tests instead of earning straight 100s. I'm a librarian, and the more I know about everything, the better I'm able to help my clients. I'm a generalist at heart, not a specialist, so maybe that's why I found the breadth of courses useful. Imagine only taking courses in your field--well, you *can* imagine it, because that's what grad school is for.

I think breadth IS the point - we value that in our students. I think the idea is that having both general understanding across disciplines AND depth within a specialty is very important. Specialized fields also benefit from workers who bring varied perspectives.

I disagree that the UK system, at least, leads to more depth of study. Since the degree generally only takes 3 years, they accomplish about the same level of depth as American students, though on a stricter track. The students can sometimes take a couple electives, and they can have a secondary specialization at some universities, but the main difference is that without distribution requirements and without the fourth year, those students get the specialization but just lack breadth. They are, however, done faster.

People who don't want a liberal arts education or don't feel it's valuable do have other choices, like technical schools. The liberal arts degree is meant to produce a well-rounded education, which I think is excellent. I'm pretty much unequivocally in favor of educational breadth. How else can you incorporate your specialized knowledge into a full understanding of the human experience? People usually need that at some level.

Now, if we're talking about the validity of encouraging breadth through requirements vs. other incentives, there I have seen it work both ways (lots of requirements at one school, and no requirements with incentives to branch out at another). Both methods seem to have merit.

I, too, am the product of a liberal arts education and I still think it is, for the right person, the best way to "go to college". College shouldn't be only about learning a vocation - if you wanted to do that, then we should have more technical schools. College should be about learning how to, well, think and understand the world/universe (yes, that is a little cheesy, sorry). Too many students come to college far too worried about what they need to do to get their degree. Part of the blame for that comes from the universities/colleges themselves - I mean, at my current academic home (a large UC), the amount of classes that most students that to take for their major alone is ridiculous. I have found that most people I know from liberal arts schools (and didn't have the ridiculous major requirements) who went to grad school in geology were just as prepared as the folks who went to big universities, sometimes even more so in fields like writing and analytical thinking. So, yes, breadth requirement are very necessary and I think should be expanded. The trend in this country to treat college as a service industry - "I pay, so give me a degree" - is maddening. College should be about intellectual growth, not a degree producing.

Here in Germany only the natural sciences and math courses are also part of the programm. The newly introduced Bachelor/Master system now also has writing courses but none of the others.

However, there is a very wide range of facultative courses ranging from languages, arts, history and whatever else you can imagine that are being offered at universities here. They are not mandatory though and purely voluntary.

From the few people I actually met from the US and from the even fewer German friends who stayed in the US for a longer time I got the impression though that there is a difference in the high-school education. It seems to be that here it goes much more into depth and width than in the US and I assume that because of that US universities are offering courses that many students here already had in their high-school education.

"The purpose of a liberal arts education is to make you a more interesting person to talk to..." --?

I tell my students this all the time and I'm sure I stole it from someone. Part of the issue is the level to which students can become hyper-focused on their major, and want to treat college as a sort of unfocused trade school.

I had similar gen ed requirements when I was an undergraduate, and I thought they were a waste of time. Not that taking things outside of your field is a waste of time, but I don't feel like I got much of anything out of most of them. My university required gen ed courses to be from a specific list of courses. I couldn't, for example, have a higher level philosophy of language course count towards my humanities requirement, though phil 101 does. This meant that these courses were, broadly speaking, designed so that the average student who doesn't care about the material can get at least a B. They weren't particularly interesting.

I also had to take courses in areas I was certain I was not interested in (e.g. literature). My Asian literature class did nothing to incite a love of literature: it taught me that poetry was about memorizing a list of cultural influences and metaphors found in the list of poems we had to read.

I think a much better system would be to require students to take a similar number of courses not in their major, but let the students choose which ones to take. I would have loved to take some linguistics classes, but my cognitive science class already filled that requirement. There was a strong incentive (college is expensive) to not continue in an area I found interesting in favor of areas I didn't find interesting (because they were required). Is that what gen ed requirements are for?

I think another big reason for distros is to protect freshmen from their own false ideas about whatever field they want to go into. A lot of people enter college thinking they want to be doctors or lawyers but bail out soon after they begin biology or poli sci classes and see what's actually involved. Distros force students to see a wide spectrum of what's available at their particular college. They may even stumble upon something that speaks to them more than what they assumed they were going to study.

As for that "learning how to think" stuff, I like the sentiment, but I have no idea what it's actually supposed to mean. Is there one proper way of how to think that works for many people in many situations? I would say no, personally. If it exists, I'd imagine you're more likely to discover it in your area of specialization as you get deeper into the field and begin to appreciate all of its nuances. A superficial treatment of Shakespeare or microecon or whatever will probably not do that.

Here's something I wrote for a graduate level class a while back:

According to Snow, the âliterary intellectualsâ and the ânatural scientistsâ have distinct attributes. The âliterary intellectualsâ âtook to referring to themselves as âintellectualsâ as though there were no others.â (Snow, pg. 4.) These âliterary intellectualsâ are comfortable with a tone that is ârestricted and constrained,â a âsubdued voice.â (Snow, pg. 4) âLiterary intellectualsâ have a difficult time understanding that âThis is the heroic age of science!â (Snow, pg. 5) In contrast, the ânatural scientistsâ think that âthe literary intellectuals are ⦠lacking in foresight, ⦠unconcerned [with others], ⦠anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential movement.â In the same vein, ânatural scientistsâ view the âliterary intellectualâ attitudes towards society as âcontemptibleâ (Snow, pg. 7). Snow also comments that âtraditional cultureâ is pervasively âanti-scientificâ though it âmanages the western worldâ (pg. 11). As Snow remarks, âliterary intellectualsâ âlike to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of âcultureâ, as though the natural order didnât existâ and consequently are appallingly ignorant outside of their âspecializationâ (Snow, pg. 14). Further, the ânon-scientistsâ have âa rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimisticâ (Snow, pg. 5). In addition, the âliterary intellectuals think of âscientists as brash and boastfulâ (Snow, pg. 4). Snow argues that scientists are well aware of the âtragicâ âindividual conditionâ but are not complacent about the âsocial conditionâ (pg. 6). He says that the ânatural scientistsâ are âinclined to be impatient to see if something can be done: and inclined to think it can be done, until itâs proved otherwiseâ (Snow, pg. 7). Snow does note that ânatural scientistsâ tend to be atheists, liberal, and from poor backgroundsâ (Snow, pg. 10). As true today as when it was written, Snow writes that the culture of the ânatural scientistsâ is âintensive, rigorous, ⦠[active, and] contains a great deal of argument ⦠at a higher conceptual level, than literary personsâ argumentsâ (pg. 12). Despite this, or perhaps because of it, ânatural scientistsâ read âalmost nothing at allâ of ânovels, history, poetry, playsâ (Snow, pg. 13). Snow argues that the ânatural scientistsâ are social, moral, and psychological thinkers, but that they are simply uninterested in literature (Snow, pg. 14).

I agree with Snow when he says, âThere is no excuse for letting another generation be as vastly ignorant, or as devoid of understanding and sympathy as we are ourselvesâ (pg. 61). He goes on to reiterate that âThe chief means open to us is education-education mainly in primary and secondary schools, but also in colleges and universitiesâ (pg. 61). Snow reminds us, âTraditional methods ⦠[of education] ⦠starve ⦠curiosity about the natural world, the use of symbolic systems of thoughtâ (Snow, pgs. 62-63). âSo ⦠does a scientific education starve our verbal facilitiesâ (Snow pg. 63). An alternative is shown on page 69, when Snow discusses the âresilience and inventiveness of American higher educationâ ⦠âwhere students of the sciences are receiving a serious humane education.â Interestingly enough, Snow recommends molecular biology as the foundation for a new model of education on page 73. Snow declares that changes in education are required to solve this problem, and while he realizes that changes in education will not âwork miracles,â but without those changes, âwe shanât even realize what the problems areâ (pg. 100).

A second historical curricular paradigm is that of the Grecian liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Their goal was to create better citizens by enjoying balance, moderation, and thoughtful consideration of values. Since the time of the Greeks, educational philosophies have revolved around those goals, either through rejection or acceptance. For example, Perennialists focus on classical subjects by reading the great books of the Western Canon, as at St. Johnâs College in Annapolis, MD. Even purely psychological perspectives on learning focus on the ability of students to think â concretely, abstractly, and so on. Historically, the Grecian period has been considered one of the high points of Western education, especially throughout the Middle Ages - Thomas Cahillâs How the Irish Saved Civilization explicitly details the fact that Middle Age monks copied Grecian texts until the Renaissance, which allowed Western civilization to get a jump start. The Renaissance was a cultural and societal event that glorified the ancient Greeks and their educational goals, as exemplified by the artists and architects of the period in statuary like Michelangeloâs David, or St. Peter's Basilica. Modern ideals of learner differences emphasize different subject area expertise, an idea first stressed by the ancient Greeks. Teachers have the Socratic method, developed by ancient Greek Socrates, as a teaching strategy still followed today. In short, the Grecian liberal arts are a historical curricular paradigm that have both influenced and been influenced by all the major curricular determinants since their time period.

American approaches to curriculum have historically been focused on forming students into something, as if they were a product solely of their education. Contemporary Reconstructionism, with its pragmatic base, is an excellent example. According to Ornstein in chapter 1, the goal of Contemporary Reconstructionism is to âimprove and reconstruct society; education for change and social reform.â Even the societal philosophical consideration emphasizes âindividual growth and development; belief in [the] individual with [an] ability to modify, [and] even reconstruct, the social environment; independent and self-realizing, fully functioning behavior; importance of [the] person; [the] full opportunity to develop oneâs own potentialâ (Ornstein, et al, pg. 9)
Students here are not valued for themselves, even though Contemporary Reconstructionism could be classified as the most âliberalâ approach to education. Instead, they are valued for what how they could change society â as if their sole role in life were to carry out societal change.
Perhaps the most difficult idea in these approaches to education is that they consistently tell children that they are not yet worth something â only when they are adults are they worthwhile individuals, and in order to be good members of society, they have to change society. So, not only are children not valued for their own abilities and possible contributions, they constantly labor under future expectations which they may or may not be able to meet. No wonder we have teenage angst!

At Caltech, which requires 12 terms of humanities as well as numerous specific math and science courses, I have heard the argument that if we didn't require so many terms of hums we wouldn't be able to support a humanities department at all.

Although in most cases students don't seem to get much out of hums, they do prevent our writing abilities from atrophying completely. (Many of our hums cannot really be considered 'academic' courses, and give an A to anyone who bothers to do the work at all.)

Courtney: It's been clear that I need to read Snow for some time. Thanks for reminding me again. (I wonder what he would say about the humanities if he were writing now? My impression is that my colleagues across campus have much more permeable disciplinary boundaries than the sciences do. I mean, within the sciences there's a lot of cross-fertilization - especially in the geosciences, where a lot of the grad students have undergrad degrees in physics, chemistry, applied math, or engineering. But that's not the same as breaking down boundaries between philosophy and sociology and literatary studies.)

For everyone else: I tend to agree with the idea that breadth is good. (And it's nice to have some guidelines for helping freshmen explore possible majors - gen ed requirements at least break down the huge number of possible classes to consider, and create an excuse to try new things. And hopefully something will eventually click, and students will find their niches.)

But the reason I'm asking this question is that I'm going to be on a committee that's charged with assessment, especially of general education. How can you recognize a gen ed program that works? (Lucas's program, for instance, sounds like it fails to push students. How do you recognize that problem, and tell it from a situation in which students resist breadth because they want to stay within their narrow focus? I would say that the vast majority of courses at Carleton were interesting and challenging, even intro courses filled with non-majors. On the other hand, just sitting around and drinking beer with my dorm-mates was interesting and intellectually challenging. So did the college succeed in creating a gen ed program, or did they succeed in recruiting and admitting interesting students?) The Contemporary Reconstruction model that Courtney describes sounds like it has more identifiable goals, but there's something about demanding that students create societal change that makes me squirm.

I had had an out, when I was an undergrad students in the honours college (determined by grade point average) were allowed to ignore the general ed requirements. Now that was very convenient, as I had enough AP credits to make a three year degree feasible. So I was able to blow through in three years, and take a lot of science to boot. Of course I still feel I was underprepared for grad school. My grad school career can best be described as a train wreck. Perhaps if I had been required to take more general course, and take four years that wouldn't have happened? Not only was I underprepared for grad school, but I started with a severe case of technical burnout, which only made matters worse.

Interestingly, now, more than a third of a century later, I have great interest in many of the subjects I distained back then. But, then I don't feel cheated, since this sort of general ed stuff is pretty easy to acquire via self study.

Suggested readings:
of course, C.P. Snow
For a good overview of different points of view:
Contemporary Issues in Curriculum by Ornstein, Pajak, and Ornstein

For some philosophical/historical POVs:
Philosophy of Education by Nel Noddings
Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education by Joy A. Palmer
The Curriculum Studies Reader by Flinders & Thor
Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education by Steven Cahn

For some collegiate professional views:
Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide to Purposes, Structures, Practices, and Change (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series) by Jerry G. Gaff (Author), James L. Ratcliff
Curriculum Development in Higher Education: Faculty-Driven Processes & Practices: New Directions for Teaching and Learning (J-B TL Single Issue Teaching and Learning)

I don't mind breadth requirements but it feels like every year, more of them get tacked on to every degree. Now a 4 year sciences degree is taking almost 5, due to some over extended breadth requirements. It's not uncommon for a BSc here to take 5 years, as I'm told.

At some point it's too much. My science classes suffer from rushed labs, and simply a lack of time to even do any kind of hands on field work, because we have to cram SO many classes and labs in, to cover the breadth, and myriad conflicting pre requisites as well.

I'm a junior at Willamette University right now (a small liberal arts college). We have somewhat different GE requirements. Basically we need one course from each of five categories (things like "Understanding Society" or "Exploring the Natural World"), three writing centered courses (including one inside our major and one outside), and two math/chemistry/physics courses

A lot of people grumble about them (especially because some classes that ought to fulfill a requirement don't), but I think that it's pretty essential to any major. A scientist that can't write decent prose or distinguish between good and bad political arguments is handicapped, just like a writer that doesn't know the difference between good and bad science. It's less a "you'll be boring" requirement than a "you won't be able to function outside your field" requirement. Plus a lot of the skills carry over: an art class is useful in the sciences because it helps with technical drawings and photographs, and politics depend on the sciences to make a lot of decisions.

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I went to University in the UK (therefore three years, not four) and took arts/humanities courses. I wish we'd been forced to take maths, lab, science etc as it probably would have flagged up the fact that I was better at them and preferred them a lot earlier on and I could have done something about it!

I certainly would have switched majors if I'd taken a Geo course in my first year.

The general education system in college is ridiculous. You learn general education in high school. You go to college to specialize in a certain field. It's as simple as that. Remember that a college, just like everything else it the world, needs MONEY to survive. The longer you have to stay at college repeating high school classes, the more money you have to pay. If you want to take math, lab, science, ect... go right ahead, but don't make the rest of us do it. I'm a photography major. I have 61 college credits. A whopping three of those are photography related. Even my art history classes have NOTHING to do with photography. The whole college system needs to be reworked. I enrolled in college to learn about photography. In two years of college, I know little more about the subject that I did when I started. Waste of time. I can understand a couple english classes maybe so people can write a good resume, but that's about it. People always say "go to a vocational/technical school for a specific trade", but those schools offer a small amount of skills to choose from. You HAVE to go to college for most majors. I love telling friends that I've been in college as a photography major for two years, but I can barely work a camera better than they can. Makes me sound like a complete slacker. Nobody has ever given me a good reason for general ed, except for clique statements that can easily be refuted. Waste of time, should be optional or part of a students electives.