Some time ago I had a conversation with another student on the need for general education courses as part of a university degree. I don’t remember my response, completely, but the other student believed them to be an unnecessary waste of time. I will add that gen ed courses can take two years in and of themselves, if one takes them by themselves for four semesters. (I’m only considering bachelor’s of science. There are more requirements for a BA including a minor.)
Getting rid of gen ed courses might seem tempting. For one, it might be possible to graduate earlier ,and one might be able to focus better on one’s intended major. Perhaps, more electives in a student’s chosen field could become available, insuring a more in depth knowledge of the field. Also, the less courses that are required, the less money the student has to fork over.
However, universities weren’t originally designed just to give someone a degree in a particular field. They were designed to also create educated adults. Adults who would, hopefully, learn about many subjects in order to understand the world from multiple perspectives. These adults would in the process improve their critical thinking skills in the process. The issue is that many students don’t care about being an educated person. They care about getting a job and not drowning in debt.
As my undergrad career is almost over, I’ve learned to appreciate my gen ed courses. I’ve even taken extra courses in fields outside my own for no other reason than to learn something interesting. Most of the gen ed classes I’ve taken have professors who are well aware that their course is not the students’ main focus. They have other responsibilities that take priority. The expectations for these courses are very reasonable. In the process of taking these courses, I’ve learned very interesting things, and I’ve broadened my horizons. I’ve discovered new interests, and certain courses I wouldn’t have wished away, even if I could. Unfortunately or fortunately, I’m not everyone. Learning is my favorite hobby. I do take very seriously being “educated” as opposed to someone with a degree with only math and natural science courses.
Still, I think some of the complaints by my previous fellow student are to some degree reasonable. [Rant] Some small private schools have become attuned to these types of complaints. They offer minimal gen ed courses and a degree path. Of course, these schools can be notoriously bad. Their schools can be much more expensive than getting a degree at a university, even given the cost of gen ed courses. Often, the education they give is sub-par. Not to mention, most of them only offer two year degrees. They also sometimes have two year degrees in things that sound useful, but no one can find a job with that degree. Furthermore, the course they have are often not transferable to other colleges. This is a problem, if a student decides they don’t like the school. Beware of small private schools people! [/Rant]
Well, then what do colleges do about these situations? I would argue that gen ed is part of what makes a bachelor’s degree marketable. Many jobs care less about what a degree is in and more so that someone has one. Although, when it comes to some jobs, I care less about someone being “educated” than someone’s degree. (Most employers now want nurses to have their BSN.) I don’t care how my nurse did in philosophy unless the subject was an ethics topic. I care that she is good at something specific: nursing. Could universities offer these nursing students a minimal gen ed option? Perhaps. There are other similar situations such as actuaries and paralegals. If this is something colleges decide to do, it needs to be an option only. Some students and employers may really value an extra effort.
Let me be clear, without giving an exhaustive list, I think the minimal gen ed option should only be available to certain terminal non-academic lower paying degree paths. A philosophy major should, for example, should not have this option. It is necessary for reasoning, which what philosophy is, to know about the world and different viewpoints on different subjects. They need some history too, so yes, I care about how a philosophy undergrad did on their gen ed courses. This is true, especially, if they are planning on a graduate career. If anyone is applying to any grad school, I care about your gen ed!