The importance of Gen Eds

By Karen Podorefsky

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The longtime tradition of general education courses designed to shape well-rounded students continues today, allowing students to explore fields they may not be interested in or to simply broaden their knowledge on a subject.

According to Daniel de Vise’s article in The Washington Post, “Advocates of general education contend students should not be allowed to complete college without learning some amount of essential knowledge…to cover essential subjects.”

But what do these core classes do for students in the long run? Some of the Gen Eds at the University of Massachusetts teach interesting “Jeopardy” fact knowledge, but are not as beneficial as they could be to students once they graduate.

For example, it would be useful if students were required to take a basic finance class. I have a slim chance of learning important life skills like that through a class since I have no extra time in my schedule, and because I have extra time in my schedule.

Required writing classes are worthwhile, so long as they teach students more than basic writing skills. It is important for any student to have strong writing skills, as even if their major doesn’t require writing essays, they will still need to write cover letters, applications, recommendations and more throughout the course of their lives.

In some cases, by forcing students to enroll in classes they may not have taken otherwise, general education courses can help students find their major. Conversely, a student could come to school with a major picked out and decide to switch based on a newly found passion. Without Gen Eds, some students wouldn’t be able to do this.

There are, of course, schools that do not require general education courses. Smith College has an open curriculum, which allows students to complete a major and earn the correct amount of credits to graduate. The only class undergraduates are required to take is one intensive writing course during their first year.

This doesn’t mean that students enter their freshman year knowing what their major is. Students can take classes inside and outside their potential majors to explore what else is out there. This way, there is time to have a double major or minor because they don’t have to worry about fulfilling credits for extra classes.

“I really like that we have the freedom to create our curriculum,” said Linda Loi, who graduated from Smith College in May. “It gives us the wiggle room to learn about things we would not have bothered to learn about before. For example, I was able to go to UMass and take journalism classes.”

Brown University has concentration requirements, meaning you need to complete certain classes for a major. Like some majors at UMass, students can choose what interests them in their major as long as they fulfill a certain amount of credits.

Students at Brown also have a writing requirement. Writing courses are offered within every department, so students aren’t forced to take classes on subject material that doesn’t appeal to them.

“The purpose of the missing core curriculum is to give students more of an opportunity to explore areas that are completely unrelated to what they would expect to do,” said Amy Sung, a senior environmental science major at Brown. “This is somewhat overwhelming when you first arrive. … It really empowers students to make individual decisions about where they want to take their degree and how they want to use their time.”

Over time, people need to become self-directed and focus their studies in order to complete their concentration requirements. One fear is that some students may feel like they should only take “easy” classes to avoid challenging material, but Sung has found this is not the case.

Students pay dearly for their education and most realize that they must make the most of their four years. At a large school like UMass, students are given the responsibility to stay on track because advisers won’t chase students down to make sure they’re doing everything correctly. In a sense, UMass trusts its students to make the most of their learning experiences. Though choosing from a catalogue of classes to fulfill Gen Eds allows us to customize our experience, providing courses that teach life skills may be an improvement for the future.

Karen Podorefsky is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]