In a Bulletin editorial dated February 8th, Bailey Miller offered her opinion that, in her words, “General Education Courses are a Waste of Time.” I disagree, but I get it. As a professor, advisor, and parent, I often see the lack of connection between courses like College Algebra, English Composition, and General Biology to a student’s major or intended career. To some, these courses feel like a repetition of high school. Others simply don’t like these courses and would rather not master the skills at all, but gen eds aren’t going away anytime soon.
From the Kansas Board of Regents to the Higher Learning Commission, the bodies supervising and accrediting ESU are not going do away with gen eds. Nor are we. Faculty remain committed to the belief that a broad foundation in arts and sciences remains the best foundation for a solid college education which teaches adaptive, mental flexibility, life skills, and problem-solving rather than just technical know-how. When done right, gen eds prepare students for upper-division courses, success beyond college, and even life itself. You will need math and writing skills after college, trust me. And don’t even get me started on how much well need we all need self-care skills, such as those covered in HL 150 (yes, I need them too.)
Still, the system is creaky and it needs reform. A political science major relearning the parts of a cell, a chemistry major learning to write a biographical essay in MLA style, or an art major solving for x have all wondered, “why am I doing this?” This is why ESU continues to try offering gen eds more-tailored to the eventual needs of our majors. For example, Dr. Richard Schrock, Professor of Biology (now retired) offered a popular course focusing on the life skills non-science majors can learn from biology, like evaluating claims about science by non-scientists in political debates, or the news. Schrock also taught students how to apply the scientific method to real-life problems. Your generation is already being confronted with an array of challenges from climate change to immunization denial, so a class like Dr. Schrock’s can be just what the doctor (or scientist) ordered. No wonder that after some growing pains, the class became a popular part of ESU’s curriculum.
Unfortunately, more-recent examples of such innovation have not always met with success. A few semesters ago, Dr. Brian Hollenbeck offered a section of Principles of Mathematics tailored for both art, and political science majors. He offered me some input, and I also guest-taught a session. The class material included celebrating the geometric beauty of fractals, plus an introduction to the nearly-endless application of math to political science problems. These include the best ways to hold elections, and drawing better Congressional districts. It was an awesome course, well-appreciated by the students who took it: all eight of them.
Yes, eight. After all the hue and cry from students seeking alternatives to College Algebra—and the fact that some majors can take Principles instead of Algebra to meet that gen ed requirement (check with your advisor first)—only eight students took the pilot course. Granted, it was new. Also granted, many advisors may not have been aware of the course. Even so, we were hoping for more students.
More courses like this are in the works. These may include technical writing courses for science majors in place of Composition, to better-tailor one’s writing skills to the reports that scientists, engineers, doctors, and nurses are expected to create at work. Another idea is to emphasize physical geography for social science majors (including our future teachers), so that they master both physical and human geography before being licensed to teach the subject. This would fulfill the Earth Science gen ed.
Courses like these will allow us to make your gen eds more relevant to your major and your plans, as well as making our jobs more fulfilling (teaching the same gen ed, the same way, semester after semester, gets old for us, too). However, for this to work, students and advisors will have to stay aware of their options and think differently.
We can reform gen eds—but if this is going to work, you have to meet us halfway.