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The ISD Editorial Board suggests universities, including Iowa State, should rethink how general education requirements work. 

Why did you come to college? Was it to get a degree? To learn, to expand your horizons and cultivate knowledge? To kickstart your career? To find out more about yourself and how you fit into this thing we call life?

We all made the decision to come to college for some reason and while those reasons probably vary greatly from one student to the next, we all still find ourselves at this place called Iowa State going about life in pretty much the same way.

In reality, this myriad of reasons can be separated into two distinct categories based solely off of intention. Are you looking for knowledge for knowledge’s sake or do your plans dictate that you acquire some knowledge first?

Did you come in undecided? Maybe you want to spend the rest of your career doing research or working at a university. Have you switched your major? That’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake. You’re learning things about yourself: what interests you, what bores you, what futures lay ahead if you would just pursue them.

Or maybe you came in determined to graduate in your declared major in less than four years. Clubs and student organizations are cool, but only if they don’t impede how quickly you can get to graduation. You made your decision and are determined to see it through regardless of what you learn about yourself over the next several years. That’s a plan.

These are both valid reasons to go to college, but their juxtaposition does raise some questions about how much a university is doing when it caters to only one of these viewpoints. One point that is often brought up by students is general education credits, or Gen Eds: those classes outside of your major that are required for graduation and intended to make you a more well-rounded graduate.

These are not the math, science and English courses that lay the foundation for your education. Gen Eds are the supplemental classes that are specifically outside of your major. They do nothing to prepare you for your upper level classes. They exist to bring diversity to your education.

And diversity of education is at the very least good, but when students are paying thousands of dollars a semester and given hundreds of classes to choose from to fulfill their general education requirements, it makes you wonder how much a university values that education, or if it ultimately comes down to finances.

For the student that came to college with a concrete plan, classes that contribute little to nothing towards their intended area of study can be easily dismissed as irrelevant, leading to a devaluation of certain departments.

But for the student who came to college undecided, looking to explore different fields of study, those same classes can be eye opening, leading to a passion and a future. Rarely are they both to the same person however.

And that’s not to dismiss all Gen Eds just because they don’t contribute directly to a student’s major. The U.S. diversity and International Perspective Gen Ed requirements are just as valuable to that student looking to graduate and begin a job as they are to a student looking to explore interests and find a passion.

Diversity of education is important and these two requirements ensure that all Iowa State graduates are prepared to enter the workforce of their generation. Cultures and expectations change, and these classes directly prepare students to confront those changes after they graduate.

But that’s only two classes, and the majority of majors require at least double that number of Gen Eds. That means students are taking classes to at the very least fulfill a graduation requirement. That can’t be a student professors want in their class.

As Paul Handstedt puts it, Gen Eds often fall into the trap of making students “uninterested, unintellectual and incapable.” It’s not the content of these courses that some students argue shouldn’t be required. It’s the implementation that brands Gen Eds in a negative light.

Universities should take a long, hard look at their Gen Ed requirements, not with the intent of removing them from students’ educations, but with the goal of teaching students why a diversified education is important. Why the extra cost associated with Gen Eds makes them a better professional in whatever field they choose. And then universities need to completely restructure Gen Eds so they are no longer requirements, but opportunities.

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(2) comments

Facts and Logic

Pretty interesting article - I'd definitely agree that Gen Eds are widely regarded as one giant waste of time - and a lot of time they really are.

I'd advocate for the addition of an agriculture class to Gen Eds - people need to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. In my opinion, that's more important than any diversity or perspectives class that could ever be offered.

Seymour Trout

Probably the most important course you can take as an elective outside your major is critical reasoning. It should be the focus of a college education, but it is not. It used to be under the medieval curriculum of the trivium. In short, you should be able to tell the difference between reason and rhetoric. What are the classic forms of logic and fallacies? In a perfect world, you would know these cold when you graduate. As it is, most ISU students graduate arguing like sophomores.

Statistics, of course, is a good course to take. No matter what field you enter, you’ll be using statistics. After you take it, the next summer you should read “How To Lie With Statistics,” because you will encounter a lot of that.

Developmental psychology is good for understanding children, an enterprise with which you will soon be consumed. Also, classical conditioning could be helpful with its explanation of positive reinforcement and such. Pavlov has a lot of vital stuff to teach you.

Everyone should take at least one course in computer programming. Many people get into programming after a few years in the workplace and run with it. Even if you don’t ever program, learning how to code teaches you how to give clear instructions.

You might consider taking the Oracle database courses at junior college during the summers. Oracle has written a series of professionally done courses and given them to junior colleges to teach. Those alone could be enough to get you a job at graduation. They use Oracle everywhere.

You should also use your summers to learn the main applications in Microsoft Office, especially Word and Excel. There is far more to them than you can imagine. If you master the Access database, you can keep track of things your future boss wants and run reports and graphs. Managers love reports.

Whatever you major in, you should consider minoring in business, because everything is a business. A handful of courses in business fundamentals would help you at work and at home. Your personal life is a business, too.

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