The utility of general education requirements

November 1, 2018

Attempting to engineer education for the benefit of the student population reveals many challenges for the simple reason that not every student operates the same. I believe that the individualized nature of students requires an individualized education system. One of the challenges that must be considered in the face of this is whether general education requirements represent a necessity or a hindrance to a student’s academic development.

Given my philosophy that school should be individualized to each student, one would not be blamed for thinking I would be staunchly against general education requirements. However, this is not the case, and, to demonstrate why, I must present the schools of thought surrounding the issue.

General education requirements differ from college to college, but Colombia University and Brown University serve as perfect context for the debate. On the Columbia University website, the “Core Curriculum” is described as consisting of “five required courses in important books and works of art in the Western tradition” and exists “to prompt students to grapple with fundamental questions of human existence and to think deeply about how the contemporary world has been shaped by the past.” Besides the five required courses, there are many other courses that must be taken from other disciplines, such as science and foreign language. The Core Curriculum is fairly extensive in its requirements and labels some content as required material for every student.

It represents a strict set of general education guidelines. This is to be contrasted with the policy of Brown University, which makes a clear note of having no general education requirements whatsoever. On its website, Brown’s explanation for this lack of a standardized curriculum reads, “unlike other American colleges and universities, Brown has no required core curriculum or distribution requirements that students must complete in order to graduate. Students at Brown have unparalleled freedom to shape their own education and to make their college curricula a more thorough reflection of their own interests and aspirations.” Brown University’s only requirement is that a student take 30 courses and complete a program that is equivalent to a major.

My issue with Columbia’s Core Curriculum is the same issue I have with most high school education. The goal of education in general and higher education in particular is to allow as much choice for the student as possible. Affording choice to a student most efficiently allows a student’s education to be tailored to her needs. Such strict guidelines over what content a student should learn and over what classes a student should take move learning out of the hands of the student and, therefore, benefit only those whose learning tendencies happen to line up with those of the required classes.

However, I also find issue with Brown University’s completely hands off approach. The purpose of allowing students as much choice as possible is to help them learn to the best of their ability. Yet, a harmful byproduct of giving students too much choice is that they will refrain from exposing themselves to education outside of their specialty.

Aside from helping students learn what they want to learn at a good pace, colleges also have the obligation to make courses available from many different disciplines and to encourage students to diversify the information they take in. This is why I believe that the best form of general education is having loose guidelines that force students to experience a multitude of different disciplines, while giving them complete freedom over how they do so.

It might seem contradictory for me to say “schools should make students diversify their thought” in the same breath as “schools should allow students as much choice as possible.” But it is important to remember that a school can foster the diversification of knowledge without sacrificing the individualized nature of each student’s curriculum. In the end, schools should want a student to be satisfied with the control they assert over their career while also being satisfied with what they have learned. I believe that both of those values can remain unhindered by a liberal, yet provocative, set of general education guidelines.

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