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The Self Shelf: General-education requirements: harmful, not helpful

Published: March 16, 2012
Section: Opinions


At most liberal arts colleges and universities, one can find the concept of general education requirements. These usually constitute required classes or areas of study of which one must partake in order to get a degree. Students respond to these requirements in a variety of ways. Some try to get all of their requirements out of the way at the beginning of their college career while others cram them all in during their senior year. A portion of students dive into their gen-eds by taking in-depth classes in the subject, while others take courses that have as little to do with the subject at hand as possible. My goal here is not to talk about how best to deal with general education requirements but instead to discuss their validity in general. I realize this policy does not have the largest impact upon student life but I believe gen-eds are bad, and that one can attain a better education without them.
General education requirements require students to take classes they have no interest in taking. This leads to a number of harms. First, in forcing the student to take these classes, it leads to half-hearted attempts on the student’s part in the class. This lack of effort leads to problems for both the students (failing) and the professors (dealing with a class of students who do not care about the material being taught). This mitigates one of the main purported benefits of gen-eds, the nebulous concept of exposure to a subject. If I am forcibly exposed to a subject I am not interest in taking, the odds of me actually liking the subject are far less than if I simply chose it out of my own free will.
Second, one’s time in college is valuable—one can only take so many classes in the standard four years one is in school. Thus, when the university forces students to take classes they do not necessarily want to take, they also prevent them from taking classes in which they would have actually been interested. It is wrong to force a neuroscience major who wants to take 40 neuroscience classes instead to take 36 neuroscience classes and four unrelated classes simply in the name of a well-rounded education. Yet the largest harm here is that it goes against the purpose of college in the first place—the ability to explore academia based on your own preferences. College is supposed to be a step beyond the structured environment of high school—there, you can make your own decisions and have an education on your own terms.
The second argument as to why the concept of general education requirements is bad is the concept of monetary returns. One can make the argument that it would be better if every student took subjects out of their comfort zone and that it is thus a fine policy. I have already disputed the academic value of such an arrangement but there is also a basic moral concept that you should get what you pay for. When a student pays to go to college, presumably they are not paying for mandated eclecticism. If the student wants to take a class in a wide variety of subjects, that is perfectly acceptable. Yet, if a student is paying Brandeis more than $50,000 for an education that will prepare them for the rest of their professional life, it seems uncertain to me why Brandeis should have any moral mandate to tell the student what subjects to study. Although one can respond that Brandeis, as the provider of services, has the right to package those services in any way it wishes, it is unclear why it ought do this. After all, it is not as if students are flocking to Brandeis for the general education requirements. Considering the relative uselessness of these services in attracting students, it seems unclear why Brandeis or any other liberal arts college for that matter has gen-eds. Furthermore, one does not need these requirements to be proficient enough in a subject to make it into a career. If anything, these requirements merely detract from a student’s future prospects of success by taking away opportunities for students to take more classes in their chosen field. Thus, insofar as it hurts the career prospects of the students while taking their money, the concept of general education requirements in general is unjust.
Lastly, general education requirements are bad because they are ineffective. The main reason propagated for the continued usage of general education requirements is the idea that they are part of a liberal arts education—the idea that one must be exposed to a variety of subjects. Yet, as I have previously alluded to, students are not walking into these classes with the hopes of exploring a new subject. Generally, students treat general education requirements with disdain—they try to get out of them as much as possible by taking classes only tangentially linked to the requirement and put little actual intellectual thought into them. The idea that forcing an economics major to take Chem 101 is going to change that student’s overall disposition seems unlikely. Even if this does happen for some, for the vast majority gen-eds are a burden they must overcome. Furthermore, this general attitude forces the professors involved in these subjects to teach to a student populace that has no interest in the subject at hand, thus robbing those who took the subject out of true interest of the attention they deserve.
College should not be a chore to get through but an exciting chance to explore the subjects in which one is most interested. General education requirements ensure the former and prevent the latter—it would be better for college education in general if they were abolished.