General Education? Seriously?

Can I just rant about college requirements for a moment, please?

When you think of “general education requirements” you probably think of things everyone should know, regardless of what career path they plan to take. Everyone needs to know how to do basic math. Everyone needs to know how to read and write. Everyone should know the events which have happened in our world (history) and how our world works (science). Everyone should have an understanding of economics and politics. And I might even concede that everyone should participate in some kind of self-development.

Also, though I don’t think it is necessarily required to function in the world and workplace, I think it’s a very, very, very good idea that everyone learn a foreign language.

So, why is it that the so-called “general education requirements” for California State University are so damned specific?

The requirements are broken into five “areas”:

  1. English Language Communication and Critical Thinking
  2. Scientific Inquiry and Quantitative Reasoning
  3. Arts and Humanities
  4. Social Sciences
  5. Lifelong Learning and Self-Development

These five sections are further divided into subareas, or disciplines, (in the interest of completion: A – 3, B – 4, C – 2, D – 10[!], and E is not divided). Each discipline has a list of approved courses. This list may be as short as two or as long as fifty.

In the interest of saving time and making my point, I want to talk about the social sciences, the area with ten disciplines. Thankfully, you don’t have to take a course from each discipline (in this case, someone wanting to transfer to CSU must take three courses for nine semester credits from at least two disciplines). At a glance, these disciplines make sense in a general education context; they are things which can be applied to any career or life course across the board. Things like economics, history, political science. These are things everyone should know (and, yes, I do believe everyone should know how economics and the government work; we have to live in this structure, we should understand how it functions).

It’s when you take a look at the approved classes where things start to get considerably less general. Like, don’t get me wrong. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a feminist. I’ve made my stance clear. And while I think women’s history is important, I don’t think it’s general enough to fulfill a GE requirement. When I think of general education for history, I think of… you know… world history, or US history. Of course, I understand that the reason they have these courses is because “general” history glosses over (or completely ignores) women and non-white people (and disabled people, lgbtq+ people, the mentally ill…).

And I think it’s great that CSU wants people to learn about these other groups (well, women and non-white people; there are no queer studies courses listed as fulfilling the requirement, and I’ve never even heard of a disabled studies course, period). I do. But, here’s the problem.

My sophomore year of college, I took Women’s History. That’s great! I learned a ton about women’s history. What I didn’t learn a ton about was slavery. It was vaguely touched on in regards to women’s contribution to the abolitionist movement; there’s some overlap with Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, but I didn’t learn about slavery in a broader sense (in fact, women’s history, like US history, is very [unsurprisingly] white). I can tell you next to nothing about WWII other than the Holocaust. I would only be 70% I could name all countries involved and what side they were on. I can tell you absolutely nothing about WWI. It was an interesting class, but it wasn’t well-rounded.

Now, if I took a general US or world history course, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about slavery, or WWI, or women’s suffrage. But, I could tell you something about all of them, instead of a lot about one and nothing about the others. Because that’s what a general knowledge is. It’s general, not expert.

And I know it sounds like I’m just kind of crapping on “minority studies,” but that’s not my intention. I understand that these classes are listed as requirements (and, in fact, exist at all) because “general” US History is very straight-white-male focused. I could definitely make the argument that “general” US History also isn’t very “general,” but in my experiences taking both US History and Women’s History, I learned about more events in US History, that I could later do more focused research on, if I chose. And that’s the whole point of a “general” education, I think. Here’s a few vague ideas, now pick a focus.

I still think minority studies are great. In fact, I think it’s a great idea to have a minority studies requirement in addition to a general US History requirement. Everyone can benefit from learning about the experiences of those around them (or learning more about their own culture, as the case may be). But learning about suffrage shouldn’t come at the cost of learning about slavery or the Holocaust. All three are important.

I could make the same argument with the Scientific Inquiry area, broken down into Physical Science, Life Science, and Laboratory Activity. Astronomy is one of the courses listed for physical science. Now, astronomy is super cool, incredibly interesting, and fun. But, is it something everyone should know? Wouldn’t it be better to have everyone learn physics or chemistry to better navigate the part of the universe we actually have to interact with on a daily basis?

And don’t get me started on the Arts and Humanities. Those are great, but art shouldn’t be required, period. Now, granted, the “art” classes are generally art history, but still. It’s art. It’s nice, but you can navigate reality without a formal education in it. I’m taking History of Photography this semester (it was either that or Interior Design 125: History of Furniture and Interiors… I’m not even joking; that’s a real, honest-to-God class offered at my school and on the GE sheet–who would need that class other than someone majoring in interior design??? WHO???). I’m sure it will be an interesting class, but it does not aid me in navigating the world at all. Why am I wasting a class on something that will not benefit me unless I decide to major in photography?

I’ll give Humanities a pass because that includes the foreign languages and foreign languages will always be useful. ALWAYS.

Now, I like to believe that the average student would choose GE classes that offered them a well-rounded and practical general education. But, what I’d like to believe and what I’ve actually seen in practice are two very different things. People are taking the courses they find most interesting, rather than the ones which offer the most educational benefit. They just want to get their requirements met with as little struggle as possible.

That’s not how school is supposed to work! You’re supposed to struggle a little bit! That’s how you learn! You’re not going to progress if you stick with things you know you’re already good at. And, if you don’t care about progressing, why are you wasting tens of thousands of dollars on a college education?

This ended up being a lot longer than I’d anticipated. Apparently, I have a lot of intense feelings about this. Oops.

Anyway, back to my completely unrelated to my career goals studies of photographic history.

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One Comment on “General Education? Seriously?

  1. The President of the United States is an imbecile. Quite frankly, I just don’t understand anything anymore. Like nothing makes sense, and CSU is no exception.


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