As high school seniors search for colleges to apply to, it will be difficult for them to find one that doesn’t have some sort of “general education” or “liberal studies” requirements. The idea that colleges must produce a well-rounded individual by means of mandating breadth in course selection is almost universal. While it would be nice if it was possible to instill knowledge into students by implementing general education requirements, knowledge is something that you have to want to have. After all, it is entirely possible to get through every liberal studies course you take with the grade you want if you memorize enough information and dump it on the exam, or write a good enough essay on a topic you don’t care about. The flaw in mandated liberal education is the idea that forcing students to complete a set of classes will make them acquire and retain a certain set of skills or amount of knowledge.
The people that acquire knowledge and skills the best are the ones that are intrinsically motivated. They want to learn something to satisfy themselves and achieve their own goals; they are unconcerned with satisfying the requirements of someone else. While it is certainly possible to learn something when you internally don’t want to, the long-term retention of that knowledge will be lower than if you actually wanted that knowledge in the first place. I think we all have experienced examples of this principle in our own coursework. We often learn a lot more and remember it for a longer period of time if we are the ones choosing to acquire skills and gain knowledge.
Even if mandating a set of courses led to students learning and retaining everything that a university wanted them to, overarching requirements prevent dedicated and determined students from maximizing their own education. A liberal studies curriculum generally composes a year or more of coursework, which is a quarter or more of a typical student’s college education. Many students would enjoy the opportunity to take a year’s worth of electives, add another major, study abroad or get a certificate. With liberal studies requirements, doing more of what you want isn’t possible. While I can’t speak for everyone in relation to how general education requirements impact their plans, I personally am going out of my way to take eight courses that I wouldn’t otherwise take. If I didn’t have to waste my time in introductory science, literature, humanities and ethnic studies courses, I could easily double major in finance and economics and complete a mathematics certificate. I could do all of that and even finish a five-year master’s degree in finance in four years.
I’m not trying to say that all of these required courses I don’t like are inherently invaluable; rather, I know that they don’t contribute to what I’m trying to do with my education. I am already confident enough in my basic writing, literary analysis and scientific reasoning skills. If it turns out that taking a 100-level course freshman year would have helped me when I’m a senior looking to enter the workforce, I’m willing to accept responsibility for believing that the course wouldn’t have helped me. Students are asked to know what they want to do with their education, yet they aren’t allowed to completely customize it.
If a certain liberal studies curriculum did indeed produce the best post-college results for students, it wouldn’t need to be required. Students would simply take those courses because taking those courses is in their own best interest. While it is impossible to prove, liberal studies requirements may help to sustain enrollment numbers necessary for operating certain departments. If the majority of students enrolled in a course are taking it because they have to, that course wouldn’t be able to exist at the same scale absent general education requirements.
At least on the surface, liberal studies requirements are about ensuring that each student meets a basic standard of competence in a wide variety of areas. We don’t make value judgements about which degree path is best for a certain student, but we do declare that required courses which comprise a substantial portion of a student’s education are valuable enough that everyone must take them. Everyone has their own opinions about what courses are valuable and what courses are not. A system where each student chooses and maximizes their own educational path is better than a system which imposes requirements that are the result of the idea a student doesn’t know what is best for their own education. It’s time to stop blindly assuming that being a liberally educated person is so great that becoming such must be mandatory. After we do that, the clear solution is to eliminate general education requirements.
Tim is a freshman majoring in finance and economics. What’s your take on mandatory breadth requirements for degrees? Are they necessary for a well-rounded education? Send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.