This article was published in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in November 2012.
The one thing I could not wait for, upon leaving high school, was to experience the freedom to focus on my chosen area of interest: writing. High school students are usually not given much power to choose what to study, especially because high school’s purpose is to broadly educate students in various areas from English to Earth Science.
Attending college is different because students specialize in their areas of interests, and are thus free to choose what to study, right?
Not really. The implementation of general education requirements bind students to a high-school-like system where they must take classes in key areas such as writing, mathematics, literature and natural or physical science. Although the goal is to provide a well-rounded education and opportunities to explore different study fields, these general education courses usually take time away from those who already know what they want to pursue, and force students to take specific classes in certain subjects that do not match with students’ individual interests.
Many students know their academic passions when coming to college and aim to take classes that will quench their thirst for knowledge in a specific field. I know what I love and want to pursue: writing. I will not change my mind about my passion, although I’m willing to explore other study areas and pick a minor or double major in something other than English. But my main goal in college is to write, write, write until I reach an ideal point of improvement. Is it helpful then to dedicate hours to a natural science class that surely does not spark my interest? My answer is no because it takes away time that I could spend dedicating to writing.
For people who have already discovered what specific career to follow, or know what their interests are, they shouldn’t have to take many general education courses – unless they want to – because they will ineffectively fill the time that could be used to work on what they really love.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are undecided students who have little or no clue about what careers satisfy their goals. A way to find out is by experimenting, taking a variety of classes and then choosing a field that seems most interesting. Thus for undecided students, taking several general education requirements makes sense, since it helps in their search to find their passion. But making both decided and undecided students take general education classes does not seem as effective because the difference between the two groups of students is very clear: one knows what study fields to focus on, while the other is still looking for their passions and interests.
General education requirements are important because they require that students experiment with different subjects and maybe discover that, instead of architecture, what really touches their heart is neuroscience. In addition, the “GE’s” do provide students with a more well-rounded education and broader worldview. But a magnifying glass works more powerfully when focused on one target. I’d much rather spend more hours improving my writing than attending that natural science class I am not interested in, because it will count more for my academic improvement in the end.
Colleges could perhaps invest in a better approach by offering diversity requirements instead of general education requirements. What this change would do is encourage students to take a handful of “diverse” classes – those unrelated to their study fields – that they consider interesting and helpful to their career pursuit. I may choose to take classes on graphics and web production, knowing that the expanding world of online literature will only strengthen my English studies.
The best way to provide students with the option of exploring different fields and provide a well-rounded education is to offer an array of classes to be counted as diversity requirements, handing the responsibility directly to the students to experiment as much as necessary, until they can determine what they love. With this change, people can combine different study areas and form well-rounded education emphases.