General education requirements should be a part of any college curriculum. They provide guidance to incoming freshmen, broaden students’ repertoire and exposure, and provide a means for comparison across colleges. The general education requirements in place in schools today do lead to well-rounded graduates in terms of academics but do not take into consideration the skills graduates will need to transition into the work environment.
General education requirements give new students a plan to follow that will provide an excellent starting point for freshman that may not know which classes to take upon entering college and may be overwhelmed by the choices offered. Since all new students must take the same general education requirements for their school, this commonality can foster friendships among students that may otherwise never meet. Schools also need common ground in topics that will be a taught at any public general education environment. Though there is competition among schools, graduates should be expected to possess some base knowledge and skill. Required general education requirements can instill a sense of standardization, however little, into public education.
My class was part of a five-year curriculum experiment at the University of Pennsylvania. A random set of incoming graduates in 2004 was selected to voluntarily participate in the Pilot Curriculum, an experimental curriculum with a reduced set of core requirements and two added components. Instead of ten general requirement courses, the Pilot Curriculum only required four. Unlike the regular curriculum, students were required to engage in research and to submit an academic plan to their advisors. At the completion of the experiment, very little difference was found between Pilot students and non-Pilot students in terms of course choices. Early nervousness about completing the research requirement quickly dissolved and even non-Pilot students found encouragement to participate in research.
One of the goals of the Pilot Curriculum was to allow students to experiment with their course choices and to possibly urge more students into math and science. However, those students under the Pilot Curriculum took less math and science courses. General education requirements will be important in encouraging students to take classes they initially find no interest in.
While general requirements will help students acquire academic knowledge, specific skills and knowledge beyond that of general requirements should also be available to students. Years of academic life train students to think and act in a scholarly way but “tools of the trade” are often neglected. Engaging in research and shadowing experienced personnel in the field should be encouraged. Although less feasible for large schools with a small teacher to student ratio, developing a close relationship to an advisor should be emphasized in higher education. In large schools, partnerships with organizations and companies in the local community can be developed circumventing the problem of poor availability of faculty members to students. Students need to develop skill sets beyond that of excelling in school.
Another aspect that traditional schooling does not emphasis is interpersonal skills. Although graduates are capable of producing good work, without interpersonal skills they cannot impress interviewers, clients, or work well in teams. The notion that social skills can be built outside of school results in education that cannot provide students all of the skills they need in order to succeed. Schools should take note that interpersonal skills are vital in industry, government, and academia.
Education in topics like history and science should be balanced by education in other types of knowledge such as self-presentation and interviewing skills. At the University of Pennsylvania, research suggests that there does not need to be 10 core requirements for undergraduates but that 4 may be too little. Incorporating math and science as separate core requirements into the Pilot Curriculum would yield 6 core requirements. Different schools and majors may require a different number or set of general requirements. However, these requirements do not take into account research, outside experience, or on-the-job skills that are currently under-weighted.
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