Via Jeff at Culture Kitchen I became aware of what can only be described as People's Exhibit #1 for why general education courses are an absolute necessity in higher education. A woman with the unfortunate name of Stacey Perk, a junior at the University of Iowa majoring in American studies and journalism whines:
A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers.
Here's the clue phone for you, Stacey. High school isn't supposed to "prepare students for their careers," at least not in the sense that you seem to mean. High school is supposed to give you the basic tools that every citizen needs to be productive in the world. That includes things like being able to read well enough to understand a driver's test or a ballot initiative, being able to handle balancing your checkbook and understanding the interest rate structure on your mortgage application, and being able to recognize logical flaws in advertisements and political stump speeches. A high school education is also supposed to prepare one to go on--whether to college or to an apprenticeship or technical school if one chooses not to take the higher education route.
But Stacey's letter gets even
The school system needs a reality check; most students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn't a waste.
I'm sure that most students have some idea what they'd like to do when they finish school. I know from both personal experience and having spent the last decade working in higher education that (a) many of those personal goals are completely unrealistic, and (b) most of them will be changed at least once between the time a student starts high school and the time that same student graduates high school--let alone college. Which, of course, is one reason why high school and college curricula require students to get a reasonably well-rounded education rather than focusing on all and only those subjects necessary (in the students' own opinions) to prepare them for their future careers. Isn't one of the reasons that one goes to school because one does not yet know enough about the world and how it operates to be able to tell what is, and what is not, important?
There's also the fact that people change careers an awful lot more often these days than they used to even when I was a lad, and this trend is not forecast to change any time soon--except perhaps in that people will change jobs and careers even more often than they do now. So, Stacey, the career you think you're going to have today will not only probably change by tomorrow, even if you actually wind up working in that field chances are excellent to good that within five to seven years you'll be doing something else: all the more reason to learn as much as you can.
Stacey saves the best for last:
Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren't interesting, you won't do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet. I worried that these classes - ones that I would never use - were going to hurt my chances of getting into the journalism school, which has a 3.0 GPA requirement. As it turned out, my GPA was below 3.0 after my first year. I had to take summer classes to raise it, and luckily, I was eventually admitted to the J-school. I can not imagine what I would have done if I were not admitted. I would have had to change my major.
How is this fair? I shouldn't have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low - all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let's just get rid of them.
Stacey apparently flunked basic logic, or she would realize that it wasn't "some stupid gen-ed classes" she was "forced to take" that hurt her GPA. It was her decision "not to attend class" and having neglected to study for them which hurt her GPA. It's hard to do well in a subject one does not already know if one never bothers to show up for the lectures which one has paid for, and then one does not study for the exams. I think even high school freshmen have learned that lesson by the end of their first marking period.
And how does she know that she will never use statistics or astronomy? I'm sure I don't have any idea what I'll be doing 15 years from now, so how can I be certain what knowledge will, and will not, be useful to me? Moreover, while I would agree with Stacey that statistics is a tough row to hoe and not terribly exciting, I can personally attest that they are very useful indeed. Especially, I would argue, to a journalist-in-training. How else do you expect to be able to unravel all those marketing claims, to say nothing of the latest Gallup poll? As Benjamin Disraeli famously observed, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." If you don't know the first thing about stats, it's very easy for people who do to pull the wool over your eyes. And in the present political climate, America needs far more people who are able to detect bullshit when it is flung at them day after day by those in power and those who control the media.
If you ask me, there is no better preparation for life than a liberal arts education. It is not the facts and figures themselves that are important--there are always reference books for those, if one cannot recall them off the top of one's head. But what a broadly based liberal education teaches one is how to learn, how to think, how to reason correctly. Those are vital skills in any profession, and with that training under one's belt, one can literally go on to do just about anything that one has a yearning to try. Employers will train new employees in the specific tasks required by their jobs--and that process goes a lot more smoothly and quickly if those new employees already know how to learn and reason and think critically.
So, Stacey, my advice to you is to get your ass back into those classrooms, pronto. You've got a lot of learning to do, and quite a ways to go before you're ready to be released into the wide world. And God help us if you wind up working for the New York Times: one Judith Miller in the world is more than enough.