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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