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The Value of General Education

General education courses are a crucial component of a sound college education.

While many students take general education to be at best an inconvenience, and at worst a waste of time, there are several reasons for thinking that such courses are valuable for students, and that a reduction of general education hours is usually a very bad idea.

While it is true that college is intended to provide students with the necessary credentials for the career of their choice, it has other important functions as well, especially in this era of globalization.

First, it can and should help one become a better person. From my own experience, my undergraduate and graduate education has helped me to be a better citizen, employee, spouse, and parent than I would otherwise be. We need scientists, lawyers, medical professionals, business people, educators, law enforcement professionals, and others who have cultivated the skills of critical thinking and are familiar with some of the most important elements of human thought. The trend towards narrow specialization at the expense of a general education does not take this into account.

Second, in a democracy, it is essential that citizens vote and participate on the basis of good reasons, and not be at the mercy of the political spin doctors who try to use non-rational and even irrational persuasion to manipulate voters. A solid foundation in the arts, humanities, and sciences can help prevent this. Even if you don't remember much in ten years from a philosophy, psychology, or physics class, the skills in critical thinking that you acquire in these different fields will stay with you and serve you well. And these same skills can also prevent you from being at the mercy of the subtle manipulation used by some advertisers.

Third, while I understand the desire to take more classes and develop more expertise in one's major field of study, there are some problems with this line of thinking. First, many people change careers several times over the course of their lives. The foundation of knowledge and critical thinking skills cultivated in general education classes will serve one better over a lifetime than three or four more courses in one's major. Second, in recent years, both the Harvard Business Review and The Atlantic have published articles making the case that companies ought to hire individuals with a humanities education, because they are trained to think in innovative ways. If you want to succeed in business, rather than getting an M.B.A., you should study philosophy, says Matthew Stewart (The Atlantic, June 2006). The CEO of Cellcom, the leading cell phone provider in Israel, put it this way: "The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks ... The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy."

Fourth, while many colleges and universities have reduced or gutted their general education requirements, it is not necessarily in their best interests to do so. Perhaps universities who maintain rigorous general education requirements could become known as places to provide students with a truly broad and deep education, so that they are better placed to be successful over the entire course of their lives.

In summary, general education requirements have many important purposes. It is in the interests of students, employers, colleges and universities, and society at large to keep this important element of a college education.

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