A friend recently my opinion of the General Education Requirements (hereafter, "GERs") as the are implemented throughout many universities in the United States. I explained to him that this question was fairly broad and that I would need some time to think about it and formulate a proper response. This post serves as that response. For background: I attend Youngstown State University and am majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics.
First off, I want to take a few moments to talk about university in general. In particular, I have found that the quality of the departments within a university (I have transferred twice, so in total have attended three universities so far) vary. A lot. Most of this post will focus on the school I currently attend: Youngstown State University, but a lot of what I say will generalize fairly well, based on the universities I have attended and the assumption that most US universities have in common what these three have had in common.
It is no secret that I have much to say against the way that computer science is handled at the undergraduate level within the United States. One day I intend to write up my thoughts in what will likely be a rather long paper which will examine the history of computer science education programs within the United States and try to piece together how we got to where we are today. Suffice it to say that I have come to realize that United States universities in general do not properly equip undergraduate students for the "real world." Indeed, there is nearly no mention of formal correctness, professors lack an understanding of even the most basic type theories, and some quotes that I have seen certain professors say (and heard of others saying via friends) have left me with no possible action other than to drop my jaw in disbelief and stare blankly -- in some cases later writing long emails in an attempt to get professors to stop spreading such trivially falsifiable lies.
If you look at the math department, on the other hand, professors are willing and able to back up what they are saying with formal proofs. I have asked several professors to do this for certain theorems I found interesting, and each of them was able to do so without question. Mathematics is grounded in proofs, so this is perhaps uninteresting -- professors of a field grounded in proofs should likely be able to regurgitate those proofs fairly easily. Nevertheless, I find the disconnect fairly concerning. This isn't to say that I am biased toward the math department. If it were that, I would drop the Computer Science major and focus solely on the Mathematics major. It is just that I want to understand where the disconnect of quality comes from and how it can be restored. I want Computer Science, as an undergraduate degree program in the United States, to be a useful thing. I want it to really prepare students for the real world, not watch as state-funded universities turn into what might as well be trade-schools by cuddling up with businesses like the Youngstown Business Incubator and encouraging students to partake in a start-up which will statistically fail not long after starting.
So what does this have to do with GERs?
First off, what is a GER? Most universities require that incoming freshmen must take a series of courses from various departments, as part of their degree program. These courses and departments vary from university to university, but often include things like Writing/Composition, Communication, Arts and Humanities, Politics, Natural Sciences, Economics, History, Ethics, and some others. There is a predetermined number of credit-hours that each student must take from each department.
What is the point of them? Well, I argue that there are two main features of GERs:
Let me break these down a bit.
GERs give students a view of what all is out there beyond the fields they are majoring in. This is important because students can pick up new (perhaps side) interests that they had no idea about previously. This can also work in the other direction though, unfortunately. For a while, I wanted to take a political science course because I wanted to become more informed politically. I expressed this interest to some friends for a while before transferring to Youngstown State University, but after transferring, it turned out that I was able to take an introductory Political Science course as a GER. Unfortunately, my teacher carried himself very unprofessionally, swearing often, not making himself clear, and generally making the class fairly uninteresting. But I could have lived with all of that. It wasn't until I had to leave early one day because something came up, when I stood up and walked out of the class a few minutes early only to be cussed out by the professor in front of the entire class, that I decided I would never take another political science course at a university again. That said, I plan on buying some books and reading up on it more myself. Teachers can ward students from ever wanting to take another class in their field, very easily. But I think they can also almost-always have the opposite effect, if they carry themselves appropriately and put some effort into making the class into something memorable and enjoyable.
The other point is that GERs open up places for students to apply knowledge obtained in their field of study. I am dual-majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics. Let's take Computer Science: You learn algorithms and data structures and other theoretical aspects, but then when it comes time to apply them you are pretty much told to go talk to the Youngstown Business Incubator and get a job at a start-up writing NodeJS or Ruby code for some startup until it fails. Then what? Whereas after taking GERs, students might have some idea how to apply their field of study to other domains. For example, what happens when you take biology (a Natural Science GER) and apply it to computer science? You get the field of bioinformatics or computational biology. What happens when you take language courses (broadly, linguistics) and apply it to computer science? You get the field of computational linguistics. And so on.
In that way, GERs give students an opportunity to use their field of study in ways beyond the start-up culture that so many of them are being pushed toward.
So -- what do I think of GERs? Well, I think that until individual fields of study are better off in universities (until the Computer Science curriculum is fixed and professors stop saying spreading so much trivially false information, for example), I wouldn't change the GERs because I feel they fill a necessary gap. I think that once the more fundamental issues are fixed, we can revisit the issues of GERs, but until then, I wouldn't advocate for changing them.