General Education: We All Have Something to Learn

Published: Nov 4, 2009

fredheckMegan Coady’s recent op-ed piece in the Torch, “Being well rounded may put a hole in your pock­et­book” reflects a com­mon dis­con­nect between stu­dent and uni­ver­sity expec­ta­tions regard­ing the pur­pose of higher edu­ca­tion. This is an issue at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties nation­wide; it is not unique to Ferris.

Most stu­dents go to col­lege with the sole expec­ta­tion of learn­ing the knowl­edge and skills required to get a job that earns a decent wage in a pro­fes­sion they are inter­ested in. This basic career prepa­ra­tion is obvi­ously an essen­tial aspect of higher edu­ca­tion and is achieved through courses and activ­i­ties in the student’s major. So prepar­ing stu­dents to get a decent job is a goal shared by both stu­dents and universities.

However it’s also true that vir­tu­ally all uni­ver­si­ties have loftier goals for their grad­u­ates, and this is where stu­dent and uni­ver­sity expec­ta­tions are often disconnected.

Universities not only want their grad­u­ates to get jobs, they also want them to suc­cess­fully advance in their careers and some­day become lead­ers in their cho­sen field. Universities want grad­u­ates to become actively engaged in a soci­ety that is ever more global in scope, diverse in char­ac­ter, and in need of a cit­i­zenry capa­ble of com­pas­sion­ate deci­sion mak­ing in regards to the social and envi­ron­men­tal issues that con­front us. Universities want grad­u­ates to know the joy that comes with under­stand­ing the best of human achieve­ment in the arts, sci­ences, and other fields of cre­ative endeavor. And these are not only uni­ver­sity goals: numer­ous sur­veys show that busi­ness and civic lead­ers nation­wide want to see these same qual­i­ties in their employees.

These broader uni­ver­sity expec­ta­tions are the basic goals of the gen­eral edu­ca­tion por­tion of a student’s cur­ricu­lum. They are indeed “lofty” goals in the sense that they are never finally accom­plished for any of us, but always works in progress. The best we can really expect is to pro­vide stu­dents with a solid foun­da­tion on which to build and hope they will con­tinue pur­su­ing these goals through­out their life­times. Fortunately, many of these gen­eral edu­ca­tion goals are also advanced through the student’s major and through many uni­ver­sity activ­i­ties offered out­side the class­room. With this broad, university-wide sup­port for gen­eral edu­ca­tion goals there is a good chance that most stu­dents, by the time they grad­u­ate, will not only be able to land a decent job, but will also be pre­pared to begin a ful­fill­ing life of con­tin­ued learn­ing, engaged cit­i­zen­ship, and pro­fes­sional success.

Why does this gap exist between stu­dent and uni­ver­sity expec­ta­tions regard­ing the pur­pose of higher edu­ca­tion? My own opin­ion is that the fault lies mostly with the uni­ver­sity. General edu­ca­tion fac­ulty, advi­sors, and admin­is­tra­tors do not, over­all, do a very good job of artic­u­lat­ing the value and pur­pose of gen­eral edu­ca­tion course work. I say this as both a gen­eral edu­ca­tion fac­ulty mem­ber and admin­is­tra­tor. We too often assume that stu­dents can see for them­selves the value and rel­e­vance of what we have to offer them, but the wide­spread dis­con­nect between stu­dent and uni­ver­sity expec­ta­tions is strong evi­dence that stu­dents do not in fact see the value and rel­e­vance for them­selves. My mes­sage to the uni­ver­sity is that we need to do a bet­ter job of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to stu­dents the pur­pose and impor­tance of gen­eral edu­ca­tion courses and goals.

My mes­sage to stu­dents is to take a more expan­sive view of what it means to be a uni­ver­sity grad­u­ate. It’s about much more than just get­ting a job. Rather than view­ing gen­eral edu­ca­tion courses as hav­ing “lit­tle ben­e­fit [because]..they can be irrel­e­vant to the individual’s future career”, view them as once-in-a-lifetime oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn from experts in their fields. The great major­ity of these teacher-experts care deeply about your learn­ing and want you to share their excite­ment for what they teach. Perhaps a course is irrel­e­vant to your career, but every course presents an oppor­tu­nity for per­sonal growth, and this too is what a uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion is about.

Finally, work on your own and with your aca­d­e­mic advi­sor to be proac­tive in con­struct­ing your aca­d­e­mic plan. The sooner you can work out a ten­ta­tive sched­ule of courses for your entire time at the uni­ver­sity, the more options you will have for find­ing gen­eral edu­ca­tion courses that fit your sched­ule and that inter­est you. The longer you wait the harder it will be to find the right courses at the right time in your uni­ver­sity experience.

General edu­ca­tion course work is a vital part of the cur­ricu­lum for every uni­ver­sity in the coun­try and is viewed as essen­tial by a broad spec­trum of busi­ness and civic lead­ers nation­wide. As a uni­ver­sity we need to do a bet­ter job of explain­ing to stu­dents why they need to take gen­eral edu­ca­tion courses. As stu­dents, be proac­tive in devel­op­ing your aca­d­e­mic plan. Embrace all your uni­ver­sity courses as oppor­tu­ni­ties for per­sonal and pro­fes­sional growth. It will bring a whole new per­spec­tive to your edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ence and leave you well pre­pared for a suc­cess­ful and ful­fill­ing life.

Editor’s Note: You can read Megan Coady’s orig­i­nal story here: Being Well-Rounded May Put a Hole in Your Pocket