What is the true cost of Gen Eds?
For almost four years now, my search to find an interesting and easy – preferably easy – physical science (PS) general education class has been a dismal failure. I tried Astronomy 101, but it was inexplicably boring and much harder than it should be. I gave Geology 101 a shot, but that too had nothing to do with me. More recently, I went with Chemistry 102, but the class material was so outside of anything I cared about, I decided to roll the dice and deal with the PS requirement in my last semester.
Two weeks ago, the UMass Faculty Senate revealed changes to the General Education Requirements that will affect freshmen entering next fall. Unfortunately, the Gen Ed changes do extend far enough to ensure that students have as much opportunity to explore various fields as they might desire.
My personal approach to college has been to take whatever classes catch my eye. With this philosophy I have taken such varied classes as Middle East History, African History, Irish Experience, a class at Amherst college, random political science classes that appeal to me and some public health classes for good measure. In doing so, I have been entirely satisfied by UMass’s varied class offerings because I ditched my requirements list and did whatever I wanted.
Thanks to UMass’s strict rules on how many Gen Ed classes one has to take and the exact headings they have to fall under, however, I was forced into a corner and have been scrambling to cover all the necessary bases. What the Faculty Senate should have done was create an opportunity for more choice and experimentation. It did well to abolish a third science requirement and the superfluous “social world” requirement, but it did not go far enough.
Why should students have to take a biological science and a physical science? Instead students could have two biological and physical world requirements, but be given free reign to take anything under those guidelines. Why should students have to take a literature class, a history class and a social and behavioral science class? Instead, require students to take four classes in the Social World while allowing the students to choose which. This approach will guarantee that students have to take some basic introductory classes in specific fields, but will not limit choices so strictly, forcing students to take classes that inspire the least of interest.
It is much easier to wake up in the morning to take a class that is half interesting than to wake up to go to an introductory chemistry class that is just a repeat of basic high school level chemistry. How does this add to a college experience? It just is a waste of time and takes time away from possible opportunities to apply yourself in something that appeals to you.
Personally, ever since the Middle East History class, I have understood the contentious sparks between Shia’a and Sunni sides. Since the History of Africa class, the historical dimensions of colonialism make much more sense. This knowledge might not help me with my career, but is much more appealing to me than how two molecules of hydrogen plus one molecule of oxygen make water – if that is even how chemistry works. Rock formations, the solar system and ocean depths shed little, if any light, on anything for many students – give us a chance to opt out.
It is obviously difficult to design a general education system that keeps everyone happy and excited about class. What civil engineer would want to take a literature or philosophy course? In the same breath, what political science or management major would be interested in a basic physical or biological science? Maybe this means the Gen Ed system needs to be more complex. Instead of forcing science majors into lit and classes like it, cut those requirements and vice versa for social science majors. It is not as if students will no longer be taking classes – they will still have a minimum credit requirement to reach. But letting students learn about things they might be interested in is the only way to expand their horizons and keep them involved. When I eventually invest in a silly PS class, I am not likely going to be one of those sitting at the front of class, participating excitedly and doing the readings.
There are incredible classes offered here at UMass and in the entire Five College system. A History of Western Medicine class at Amherst College was probably the most intriguing class I have ever taken even with the bland subject matter. Opportunities to take that class and other classes like it here at UMass, or at any of the Five Colleges, are severely limited because of the extensive amount of Gen Ed classes that UMass requires. The new system, as apparently designed, is a step in the right direction, but still leaves students with few options. College is supposed to be about choice; a time of finding out what one is destined to do. Introductory classes are certainly necessary, but at what cost?
Nick Milano is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.