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Have "general education" curricula gone too far?

  1. Feb 19, 2015 #1
    I'm hoping that this becomes more of a discussion than a rant on my part, because I really am curious to hear your opinions.

    In my opinion, the whole concept of "general education" has gone a little too far. I go to a state university (not liberal arts), but the classes I have taken in order to get my bachelor's degree in physics is a little insane. Now, just like I think that all liberal arts majors should have to take at least a base-level science class, I also feel like science majors can definitely benefit from taking a history or music class, you know?

    However, today I was preparing my transcript to apply to internships, when I realized that half of the courses I've taken so far (as a senior in college) aren't even remotely related to my major.

    In addition to physics, I've taken:
    • Art History I and II
    • 20th Century European history
    • Spanish III
    • Communications
    • Civic Engagement
    • Helping the Environment
    • World Economics
    • Black Music (yes, seriously)
    Some of these I understand. Communications and learning how to write a speech is definitely useful. I also think everyone should learn a second language. But black music? "Civic engagement"?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 19, 2015 #2
    It’s hard to say without seeing a syllabus or at least a course description, but some of the classes you listed sound more political than scholarly to me, as you mentioned “Civic Engagement”, also “Helping the Environment”.

    That being said, I think in general (not speaking to what you specifically mentioned) the “general education” requirements are kind of light. As an undergrad I went to a large public university and the minimum required general education credits (no specific classes were required, just a certain number of credits from a few areas) wouldn’t give one much of an education. It was a similar situation (for the undergrads) at my grad school. Anecdotally, I’ve met many people with university degrees who don’t give the impression that they’ve ever read a serious book. I’d kind of like to see somewhat more rigorous requirements.
  4. Feb 20, 2015 #3
    In my country we have no general education classes, we only take classes pertaining to our major. It's such a better system. I really wouldn't want to waste my time on classes that are not useful to me or that I don't care about. I did take some philosophy classes that I found interesting, but that's about it. I think general education should be a choice, not a requirement. As additional bonus: we get our bachelor in three years instead of four, so that's one year of tuition payment left. Now in my country it is not a problem for me since it is government sponsored for everybody, but in the US, it would mean a lot for student loans if students were to be able to study in just 3 years.
  5. Feb 20, 2015 #4


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    To physics?
    How people observe the world around themselves? It's a stretch, but can have its uses.
    How people have applied physics to make of their worlds what they want?
    Again, what do people want?
  6. Feb 20, 2015 #5


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    The point of general education classes is that every college graduate, regardless of their major, will learn how to read, write, communicate, and think at the college level. That's why you're taking those classes, and those are skills useful in pretty much every job, regardless of the field it's in. It doesn't really matter what specific classes you take, they're all about learning those skills and applying them to something in particular. We don't get that in our physics classes, but these days I spend far more time writing than I do on my actual research skills (running telescopes, reducing data, writing computer simulations, etc). Every employer wants those skills from you, no matter how much they don't appear to matter right now.
  7. Feb 20, 2015 #6
    I can read, write, communicate and think at the college level. I never took general education classes.

    And if the specific program is any good, you WILL learn those skills. We learned how to communicate in our math classes because we had to give presentations now and then. There were many other examples. General education classes are not needed for this.
  8. Feb 20, 2015 #7
    In other countries, you learn this in your secondary education(i.e. high school).

    If half the curriculum is like this, are you sure you knew what you were getting when you applied to this program?
  9. Feb 20, 2015 #8


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    Good enough reading & writing to graduate high school does not mean good enough reading & writing & communicating to study at college level. One alternative is the community college systems which offer enough remedial as well as college level language arts courses. Along this line, some of the general education requirements may be too-far more than necessary.
  10. Feb 20, 2015 #9
    But wouldn't it make sense to learn writing and communicating with a focus on the major you're taking? For example, a course that would teach me how to read and write scientific articles and how to give presentations to a large audience (both scientists and perhaps nonscientists). That would definitely make sense as a separate course.

    Although it might make sense to embed it into other courses too. For example, in my courses I often require them to do their homework as they would write a professional article (and I teach them what that looks like). And I also often require presentations.

    Of course, if a mathematician really wants to take art history, then he should definitely be able to do this. And perhaps requiring a very limited number of general education classes makes sense. But requiring somebody to take 9 courses not pertaining to the major seems like a large waste.
  11. Feb 20, 2015 #10


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    Some electives are a good thing. As a general rule I think about 80% of courses taken should be directly related to one's major, and roughly 20% being elective (maybe with half allowing for direct enhancement of the major if desired, and the other half specifically aimed at stuff outside the department and it's close neighbours). The really issues come in with the constraints what can and cannot be selected. And these are constraints students should really think about when chosing a university program to begin with.

    There certainly can be a lot of value in classes that fall outside of one's major. It's not just reading and writing skills either. These classes are an opportunity for in-depth exposure to some of the major problems that the world will deal with during one's post-university life. Without this a given program will inevitably funnel more and more people towards working on the same field-specific problems.

    Someone (DaleSpam?) posted a link to a study on these forums recently that concluded a more diverse post-secondary eduation led to a stronger economy. I looked, but couldn't find the link or remember what thread it was in.

    I did find this though, which suggests that taking a greater breath of subjects reduces the chances of unemployment:
  12. Feb 20, 2015 #11


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    One issue that you can run into is that of the blind leading the blind. Unfortunately there are a lot of physics professors who are very poor writers.

    For the record, I like the idea though. I took a course in scientific writing many moons ago and found it extremely valuable.
  13. Feb 20, 2015 #12


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    samnorris93, my question to you is this: in your school, were you and other science students required to take this many "general education" courses? Now I know you said that you are a senior in a state university, but I figure that these "gen ed" requirements may differ from school to school.

    In my alma mater (University of Toronto), students in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences were split into the following categories:

    mathematical & physical sciences (this would include students in math, physics, chemistry, materials science, geology/earth sciences, and computer science, as well as any joint specialist or double major/minor programs -- also certain programs in physical geography were included here)

    biological sciences (students in biology, psychology, zoology, human biology, botany, etc.)

    social sciences (students in economics, sociology, political science, anthropology, geography, etc.)

    humanities (students in humanities programs like English, French, Latin, classics, history, etc.)

    I, as a math student (and hence a student in the math & physical sciences), had to take 3 full credits (equivalent to 3 full year-long courses or 6 half-year courses) in the other 3 areas, with some restrictions, during my 4-year long program. I thought something like this was typical for most US programs as well.
  14. Feb 20, 2015 #13
    Haha, yes, I know. It's definitely crucial to have a decent teacher for that!

    I've often seen students who think that simply writing a correct solution is good enough (I was one of those students once!). But writing mathematics/science is as important as learning it. It's a very subtle art. For interested people, what I'm thinking of is a class like this http://jmlr.csail.mit.edu/reviewing-papers/knuth_mathematical_writing.pdf
  15. Feb 20, 2015 #14


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    A distinction is necessary between Having The Basics, and Strongly Having The Basics. YOUR students should strongly have the basics of reading, writing, mathematics, at maybe some communication through speech, so that you can easily tell them what they need to know and do.
  16. Feb 20, 2015 #15
    Sorry, this is just kind of a pet peeve of mine. People complaining that they are learning stuff about the world that they don't need to know. I don't know how many college students I have taken gen ed courses with that spout something of the nature "Why do I have to take a dumb boring history class? I'm going to be a nurse." Their complaint boils down to "I am getting knowledge that I have no interest in having." That blows my mind. There are no boring or dumb classes, only boring or dumb people.

    One of my engineering professors laments that as engineering students our curriculum is so packed that we don't get to take more classes in the arts and humanities, because that is what makes us into interesting and thoughtful people and not just drones that perform a function. I agree completely. I know lots of "smart" people that can solve a differential equation or perform physics experiments that are idiots. Being educated doesn't just mean one knows how to perform a task in a given field well, and the purpose of a university is to create educated citizens. If anything, they don't go far enough with gen eds. They dumb them down and create a career focus such as "Here is why this is good for your job. Writing papers on history gives you practice in communication and analyzing information." Screw that. Maybe a person should study history so that they will be more thoughtful and empathetic human beings that think about the big picture of human civilization. Maybe, just maybe, it is ok to know something that doesn't directly contribute to the generation of income or further one's career. Crazy I know.
  17. Feb 20, 2015 #16
    University in the US costs more than $10,000 per year. That's an immense amount of money. I wouldn't like to pay that money to take history courses that I have no interest of taking. Sure, you seem to like other knowledge, so feel free to take the courses! Don't force other people to do whatever you like.

    That said, I do like getting knowledge that doesn't contribute to income or career. But I do this in my free time. I would never want to take it as a college course because I my aim was not to study history in college, but science.

    Besides, I doubt the "dumb" people will improve much by taking college courses that don't interest them. They just do the exam and be done with it. You can really only learn if something interests you.

    In my opinion (and about the entire opinion of - I guess - all non-US countries): general education is for high school, and specific education is for university. The problem is though that american high schools are pretty terrible (note: some of them are quite good, but on average they're terrible). So I get why most students need more general education classes. But it's just a waste of money, really.
  18. Feb 20, 2015 #17
    If you're looking at it from a purely economic standpoint, college tuition and general education are not related problems. If they changed all universities into technical colleges where you take your 60 credits of physics and you're done, they would probably still charge you just as much for your degree. They would just change it from 40k for four years into 40k for two years. They would still be funding the same departments and same administrative bureaucracies. The 100 level classes would just be smaller. Tuition inflation is its own monster, and colleges are going to bleed students dry regardless of what classes the students want to take.
  19. Feb 20, 2015 #18
    Maybe, but at least I'd be done faster, and get two years extra where I can get money from my job. For sure some government regulation is needed to decrease the tuition rates.
  20. Feb 20, 2015 #19


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    This is a very widely debated topic, but I personally think that a thorough general education core is a good thing. I've taken courses in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, art history/appreciation, communication, and English composition on top of the chemistry, math, and physics courses that I've taken within my major. I've loved all of these courses. Anthropology has become one of my biggest interests, and the same could be said of philosophy. I've gained a new appreciation for art and the history of art, and learned a lot about writing and effectively communicating. In my opinion, being well educated in a broad range of disciplines is the ultimate purpose of college. It's about being well educated, and not simply trained for a job. This is the philosophy of colleges in the United States. Many other countries see college in a very different way, but many countries structure their education systems in very different ways, and given the structure of the education systems in many countries, it makes more sense to have a very minimal core curriculum.

    That being said, it sounds like you're taking an unusually high amount of GenEd courses for a college senior. Did you put off a bunch of them during your freshman/sophomore years? I've gotten almost all of my GenEd courses completed. I'll be a junior next year, and I'll only have three GenEd courses left. Two of the three are introductory computer programming (which is actually a major requirement) and a course on the philosophy of physics and mathematics to fulfill my advanced composition requirement (GenEd requirement, but selected for relevance to my major). The third is a non-Western cultures requirement, which I'm going to fill with a World Religions course in the fall. I'm a physics/math double major, and aside from those three courses, the rest of my courses during my junior and senior years will be physics and math courses.
  21. Feb 20, 2015 #20
    As far as I'm concerned: Quebec undergrad lasts for 3 years, and one may take 6 (and sometimes 9, in some disciplines) credits of gen-ed coursework, whereas double-majoring would reduce the requirement to 3 credits of gen-eds.

    If the students aren't motivated to take courses outside their field, they may get very little out of it, even skills-wise. More is not necessarily better. In fact, I would say that it is better to be able to decide when to learn something and when not to, than to learn everything.

    Some may say that an university education aiming to produce well-educated graduates on top of training graduates for a narrow range of jobs; however, such a vision is incompatible with the high tuitions we see today, and said tuitions are the reason why so many seem to see college as a primarily, or perhaps even solely, vocational education.
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