College students in the 1970s could complete degrees in liberal arts, English, psychology and sociology without ever having taken a mathematics course. Likewise, engineering, computer science, pre-med and geology students could earn degrees without having to read a novel.
By the 1990s, the academic world pushed the pendulum the other way, and thus was born general education requirements, known to students today as “gen ed.” They are not universally embraced, as seen in a recent opinion column in the Maine Campus, the University of Maine student newspaper. “There are deep reasons for despising general education requirements,” junior Jeremy Swist wrote. “Gen eds are just a repeat of everything you learned, or should have learned, in high school,” he argues. “The increase of gen eds, which devour college students’ time and money, is an inverse function of the quality of American high school education.”
Mr. Swist asserts that students grow bored, waiting almost two years to take classes in which they are passionately interested.
Another problem with the proliferation of required courses is that students have difficulty completing their degrees in four years, even taking a full course load each semester. The University of Maine at Farmington recently pledged to get new students through in four years by making all the required courses for a degree available in a timely way.
Professor Tina Passman, chairwoman of the UMaine Faculty Senate’s general education committee, said she and other top-level university curriculum officials will attend a conference this summer at which rolling back gen ed requirements will be considered. She agrees with much of the criticism. Some students “have become more bean counters,” she said, checking off the required classes they complete, rather than gravitating toward a subject for which they have some passion or at least curiosity.
“We would like to return that level of freedom to students,” she said, so class choices are subjects “that really inspire them and turn them on.”
There is another side to the argument, though. Gen ed classes expose students to new disciplines, some of which are not in high school curriculums. And clearly, society benefits from having college graduates who, regardless of their major, can write a clear letter, compute income tax returns, understand the workings of government and explain to their children the wonders of the digestive system.
If gen ed classes are more remedial than exploratory, there is a problem. Students could be given the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of writing and math, for example, in a test and be granted waivers for some gen ed classes.
The college experience should be qualitatively different from high school. Bringing back the joy of exploring new subjects as electives, not requirements, is the right direction for colleges to take.