Last time, I talked about the idea that college is too expensive. The second part of this discussion is that half the courses you take in college are a waste of time.
There is the prevalent idea that the General Education courses that we force feed down our student’s necks are a waste of time. In some ways I agree. In others, I disagree.
When I went to community college, they offered an Associates in Arts, which meant that, if you took certain courses and got enough credits, you could transfer to a four year college as a Junior. I did that. Lots of people did. Lots of people still do. There was a loophole that I took advantage of. If you get an AA, you transferred with all your credits accepted in one huge block. It was if you just did all your Gen-Ed classes at the four-year college. At the college I went to, you had to take swimming as a Gen-Ed. You had to. There was no way around it. However, since I went and got my AA, I didn’t have to do it, because my AA was one big block of general education classes. Thus, because of dumb luck, I got out of taking swimming classes, a core class that the college thought was important to take. Yes!
This is where I’m supposed to say that I regret that, that I wished I learned how to swim (I don’t know how), that I wish someone forced me to do it, blah, blah, blah. That’s not true. Even if I did know how to swim, getting in a bunch of water doesn’t remotely sound fun to me. It doesn’t even sound a little fun. And, yeah, maybe if I knew how to swim, I’d like it more. That’s a lot like saying that, if I knew how to drive a Mack-truck, I’d enjoy driving Mack-trucks. I doubt it.
Anyway, there is a reason why colleges make students take classes they don’t want. One answer is actually really simple. The other is much more nuanced.
First, students have no idea what they like, what they are good at, or what they are interested in. That’s why we force them to take Gen-ed classes. This is actually my best answer, because it’s true. I went to college as a History Major. I changed my major when I realized I like writing and reading, but I’m not too interested in History. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t taken Gen-ed classes. This is true so often, for so many students, that we’d be providing a disservice if we didn’t offer Gen-ed classes. More than once, I’ve taught students who asked me what they could do in my field of study. We forget that we are dealing with 18 and 19 sometimes 20-year olds who have barely lived life. Showing them all options is our obligation.
The second reason College students have to take General Education is because we are offering them a “General Education.” It’s general, which means it is covering a wealth of topics. It’s an education because we are educating them.
Here’s a perfect example. During that uncomfortable five minutes before class starts (teachers know what I’m talking about), a student asked me if I was on a diet. I wasn’t sure if she asked me because I needed to go on a diet or because I was losing weight. I sort of do this thing I do to avoid a stupid question. I shook my head and looked at my phone.
“All you have to do is stop eating anything but meat,” one student said. “That’s an easy way to lose weight.”
“That’s stupid!” another student said. “How does that help you lose weight?”
“It just does,” was the best defense. Then another student said what needed to be said.
“Protein,” she said. “All your body needs is protein.”
Which is true. Sort of. But guess where she learned that. It wasn’t on her Facebook page. She learned it in her Biology class.
I maintain that a person should have a certain level of knowledge about everything. You should have a base-line amount of knowledge about every subject. You should know how plants use water, nitrogen, air and sunlight to live. You should know why World War I was started. You should know why booze gets you drunk and why aspirin helps with a headache. You should know why our Sun would one day go super-nova. Just a vague knowledge is enough. You aren’t living a complete life if you’re not at least a little curious about the world. And it really isn’t too much to ask.
And, yes, I should know how to swim. I don’t regret not knowing, but I do feel less sometimes for the not knowing. I guess that is regret, when you get into it. In a nuanced sort of way.
Next, I’ll talk about how college doesn’t matter when it comes to getting a job.
Updated: In my flurry to get this out, I didn’t bother to see how you spell “Mack Trucks.” This oversight has been corrected.