A Case for Gen. Eds.

images3.jpegI’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the work that I do.

Most of you know, though some of you may not, that I teach English at Tiny Community College here in my New England hometown. All English courses at TCC – Grammar (a.k.a. Foundational English), Literature, Composition, and Effective Communication (a.k.a. public speaking) – are required courses – General Education Requirements, or Gen. Eds. – that every student, regardless of program, has to pass. This essentially means that, in any given class of, say, twenty students, there are probably twenty of them who would rather not be there.

I’ve been lucky so far in that I’ve had at least one or two students in every class I’ve taught who, if they didn’t necessarily want to be there, at least made very little fuss about it and, once or twice, really got into the flow of the class and participated in meaningful ways. Most of the time, though, I’m playing to a very, very reluctant crowd. I feel fortunate to have students offer answers – most of the time I have to actually call on kids to respond to a question I put out, and I often have to stand in awkward silence while I insist that they actually offer me a substantive answer. The quality of the thinking that gets done in my classes is often staggeringly disappointing, and I am regularly struck with feelings of helplessness as I record failing grades for yet another student who cannot read, write, or think much better when she leaves my class than she did when she arrived.

My Tuesday/Thursday public speaking class offered up a bit of resistance this past week, which has been part of the motivation for my thinking so much about the classes I teach and the objective, intrinsic value that they may or may not have. A vocal minority of students suggested to me on Thursday that the material that I was presenting to them as models for the kinds of speeches we were studying were meaningless to them; that they had no connections with the material, the history, the modern implications, or the overall messages that the speeches strove to deliver (and I should note here that their complaints were not nearly so eloquent. What I actually got was “we don’t get it”).

It has been suggested to me, both by a few students in that class (the one or two who actually choose to engage me in this conversation) and by several of my readers (thanks, you guys!) that this isn’t necessarily news and isn’t particularly noteworthy. There is a deep and persistent characteristic of apathy in the current generation of students – from middle school on up – that precludes them from putting forth an effort toward anything that isn’t seen to have immediate or obvious relevance to their lives right-now-this-very-second.

Whether this is due to over-indulgent parents or the immediacy of technology (24 hour, spoon-fed news, video games, instant messaging, whatever), I cannot say with any kind of authority. What I CAN say, though, is that I see it as an alarming trend, and my magic crystal ball tells me that we’re heading for dire and drastic ruin if we don’t do something about it, and fast. Pretty soon, we won’t be able to talk to each other at all anymore.

Look, I had to take Gen. Eds. in college, too. I was an English major (duh! Really, Mrs. Chili?! We never would have guessed!) and, during the course of my undergraduate studies, was compelled to take several science, math, art and music courses that, at the time, I didn’t really see the need for and, as I write this, can’t recall very much about. I remember joking – in a not-quite-joking way – that the only reason I passed my math requirements was that I was living with an engineer (thanks, Honey!). I chose the dumbest science courses I could get – “Food and People” and “Forestry,” if memory serves. While I enjoyed the art and music classes, I can’t really tell you anything that I LEARNED from them.

This leads me to my point, though; while I may not recall much of the content of the courses, I can say with absolute certainty that they were excellent learning experiences. I received a background – a foundation – in a lot of different things, but it’s not necessarily the material that I hold as important (obviously, because I can’t remember any of it); what’s important is that I got experience in thinking and researching and considering things that fell outside of my area of concentration. I learned how to classify things in the forestry class and how to conduct a scientific study in the nutrition class. Could I do those things well now? No; I couldn’t, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I had the experience of doing those things, and in having that experience, I can connect it with other experiences that I have had – and may have in the future – to make that new learning richer and more meaningful.

I may be rambling at this point, so let me bring myself back: what I’m saying here is that my experiences of taking the math and science classes – of taking all the classes I took that didn’t directly involve the study of English – have made me a better scholar, a better thinker, and a better person. I learned,a little bit more, how to think in those classes, and to think in ways that my English courses didn’t require of me. An example: Bowyer, who is one of my very best friends, is a biology teacher and knows an awful lot about science. I don’t, but the fact that I’ve had the experiences I’ve had – and some of them as a result of being forced into classes as a requirement for my degree – give me at least some base upon which to relate to him when he starts talking technical near me. I don’t feel as though I’m too dumb to talk to him when he starts in on his long and detailed discussions about anatomy or genetics or disease. We have at least a cursory grasp of a common language and experience that make communication, if not equitable, then at least possible.

What I’m saying, in my verbose and roundabout way, is that I think that Gen. Eds. are necessary, if not for the content they deliver, than for the experiences they provide. Would my students have ever come across Albert Speer’s chilling prophesy of the coming capabilities of humans to make war if they hadn’t taken my class? Would they have ever actually heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s masterpiece speech about civil rights and America’s unkept promises if not for this course, or would they just have had some vague notion about something about a dream? Are my students going to remember, in five years, the words of the man who was audacious enough to suggest that we hope for the future? Will they be able to define what a social contract is, or discuss the nuances between imply and infer?

Maybe they would have seen and heard and thought about these things, but I’m going to guess not, simply because they can’t go out of their way to really engage with the material I’m handing them – I’m certain they wouldn’t have sought out these experiences on their own (any more than I would have sought out a statistics class – thanks again, Honey! – or a music course). The fact that they DID encounter these things, though – and the fact that they saw me get excited and intense and curious about these things – leaves me with a glimmer of hope. I truly believe that, at some point in their lives – and, hopefully, in the not-too-distant future – they’ll come across something that sparks a tiny flicker of remembrance, and they’ll be able to draw upon the experiences we shared to inform their new learning, or to encourage them to enter into a dialogue that challenges the edges of their current understanding.

Hey, wait a minute – didn’t I learn something like this in Mrs. Chili’s class?

It’s really the best I can hope for.



Filed under concerns, Learning, Questions, Teaching

15 responses to “A Case for Gen. Eds.

  1. bowyer

    “I don’t get it”.
    This is one of the most frustrating statements a teacher can hear from a student. It means almost nothing to the teacher; what is “it”? (A word, a concept, a formula, sex, what?!?) By this statement I can only assume that there is something about the lesson plan the student doesn’t understand, generally because I still, contrary to what I usually write in this blog, believe that most students can’t be stupid enough to have understood no part of the assignment.
    More importantly this is a statement that has been successful in getting students help (more than they really need) from their teachers in the past. The teacher, having nowhere to begin, reviews everything with the student, and the student “gets it right” while having to do little in the process but nod as the teacher does the work with (for) her.
    This learned helplessness has become such a problem that when I question the student about what in particular he “doesn’t get”, the student gets all bent out of shape because now he has to attempt to explain himself. This requires effort and thought (he is not accustomed to either), and indicates to him that the teacher is unwilling to walk him through a process that either he should already be able to do but needs to practice, or, the teacher wants him to try to get through on his own in order to explore something about the process.
    Make them explain themselves, they often learn much in the process, and you get a chance to truly evaluate what they can/can’t do.
    The reliance on this behavior has brought them to this point. When they say that the passages you bring them are meaningless to them it (sadly) is true. It is meaningless only because most have internalized so little of their past education that they can’t make the connections.
    General Education requirements, in theory, are supposed to alleviate the “I don’t get it.” moments, but most are so filled with factual drivel that they require little higher order thinking. The kids can pass these low level, dumbed down, courses. (By the way, the material isn’t dumbed down, only the level of thinking required to pass.) Our gen eds today aren’t really general any more. Gone are the days of introductory classes and that the teach the how-to of the subject.
    Good Gen Ed courses should give the students just enough to understand what comes later so that they can communicate comfortably enough to say “I don’t understand what you are getting at when…”, rather than “I don’t get it.” They should teach this material well, and require the student be able to perform competently at a basic level before moving on.
    A basketball analogy would be a coach trying to teach plays before the kids can reliably dribble or pass the ball. We often are asked to teach material before the students have learned to read, write, and think.
    Going back to the basics (especially in the early years) would not be a step backward, but instead would allow the students to make much more progress in the long term.

  2. I have to admit that I have an issue with GenEd courses – to some degree, anyway.

    I remember going to the University of Southern Maine to get my Bachelor’s Degree. I, too, majored in English (not that I’d last half a second in a conversation with Mrs. C. about the subject). I needed 120 credits to graduate. I believe 40 of those credits came from my major. Another 40 came from electives. The other forty came from “core requirement” courses, as USM called them – math, science, foriegn language, history, etc…

    I clearly remember my initial shock that only one-third of the classes I was taking actually had anything to do with my major. Why do I have to take these “core requirement” classes?

    “Well,” the response I got from my advisor was, “they’ll make you a more well-rounded person.”

    A more well-rounded person?! What the hell have I been doing for the last thirteen years (grades K – 12), being square?! If I was any more round, I’d roll!

    I never got a good explanantion for one-third of my Bachelor’s Degree being electives, btw, which has lead me to believe that the real motivation for core requirement / GenEd courses and electives at universities and colleges is money. Plain, flat-out, good old-fashioned greed.

    Let’s be honest – if a person doesn’t “get it” after 12 – 13 years of schooling, he or she isn’t likely to “get it” with one more semester – especially if he or she doesn’t want to be there.

  3. This point we make, Bowyer, about teaching students how to think is an important one – perhaps the MOST important. While I can’t intelligently discuss genetics with you, I can ask good questions and follow along while you explain precisely because I’ve had the experience – in my Gen. Eds. – in thinking in ways that are different from the ways that my concentration required me to think.
    I’ve had students complain that the work that we do in class is too amorphous; that I don’t teach easily digestible facts that can be later regurgitated onto tests. The better part of my classes is spent in analysis and conversation – I ask students to go beyond what they see on the page and to draw inferences and conclusions that may not be immediately obvious. They don’t like that, not in small part due to the fact that I suspect they’ve rarely (if ever) been asked to exert themselves in these ways. Investigation discomfits them, particularly if it involves interpretation and instances where there are no easy (or, in some cases, right) answers.
    I’m not even going to get into the fact that (too) many of my students can’t perform at a basic level the skills my classes are intended to reinforce. They prove to me, again and again, that they’re not just lacking the ability to think nimbly, but also the ability to write coherently. Even when I DO give them the straightforward information they seem to want, they are unable – or unwilling – to do the work necessary to commit that information to memory so they can put it into practice in their lives in or outside of the classroom (much like your comment the other night, Bowyer, about homework being done at home).

  4. “I’m not even going to get into the fact that (too) many of my students can’t perform at a basic level the skills my classes are intended to reinforce.”

    And being able to perform at a basic level is something they should’ve been taught to do the previous 12 – 13 years of their life. That’s my point. I thought the point behind college was so you could further pursue studies you WANTED to pursue.

  5. You kind of make my point here, Falcon. Colleges and universities CAN’T count on students coming to them with the foundational and/or intellectual skills: at least, not with any kind of reliability. I think it is entirely right and fitting – not to mention ethical– that institutions of higher learning hold students to the standards that they have determined their programs value, and to require that those students do something to demonstrate those abilities. Gen. Ed.s offer opportunities for that demonstration, and I really can’t argue against that.

    Higher learning has never really been about single-minded pursuits – at least, not as far as I’m aware. The entire POINT is, and always has been, to dabble a bit in everything even while focusing on a specific subject, so that one can think expansively.

    While I appreciate your point about the money (TRUST me, I apprecate your point about the money!) and completely agree (and admit) that there is a lot of content that I have certainly never used in the persuit of my vocation (z scores, anyone? cell mitosis? baroque instrumentation? Anyone?), I can’t say with any kind of conviction that these experiences were a waste of my time OR my money. I AM more “well rounded” than I would have been without those experiences, and while I may have grumbled about them at the time, I’m grateful I was compelled to do them. My more mature and experienced vantage point offers me some insight into the necessity of them.

    I should also point out here that ALL of these students could avoid ALL Gen. Ed.s simply by applying for the certificate programs in their areas of concentration, rather than persuing a degree. They essentially chose the more involved course of study, many of them because they recognize that a degree holds more cred than a certificate, and they were completely and comprehensively informed about what would be expected of them to earn that degree. To my mind, once they sign on to the program, they have little cause to complain about the requirements imposed on them.

  6. I teach upper level computer science. In some of my courses, I assign a research paper. I am now encountering more and more students at the Junior/Senior level who don’t have the first clue on how to write a paper. It is not just a “feeling” anymore that the students are coming into college ill-prepared for it. And the fact that so many colleges are now treating the student as consumer/customer is not helping us help them to get better.

  7. PS – and when I was in Engineering School, I too complained about the stupid core requirements. But now that I am grown and have experience in the world, I greatly appreciate the liberal arts component of my studies. But at the time – “gag me with a spoon” (yes that was what we actually said when informed we would have to take English lit and history!)

  8. “Gag me with a spoon.”

    Oh, so you’re the same age as Chili, Bowyer, and I, huh, Saintseester?


    For the record, I, too, appreciate the many different topics I had to take while getting my B.A. – now that I’m old enough to do so. At the time I did not. It’s not that I’m making excuses for their apathy (as they say in the SEAL’s, “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it”), but I can kind of see where they’re coming from and at least partially agree with them.

  9. Denever

    “I’m not even going to get into the fact that (too) many of my students can’t perform at a basic level the skills my classes are intended to reinforce.”

    This tells me that it’s unlikely these students are well-versed in history, either; they either they didn’t take it in high school or they took it and zoned out.

    I doubt that your introductions to the speeches overcome this lack of background, and really, how could they? Historians write entire books on the civil rights movement and German-American relations and the Nuremburg trials. Short of turning your class into a history course, you can’t possibly fill in the amount of knowledge your students need in order *not* to feel so disconnected from these speeches and the events they focus on.

    So I come to the same conclusion you and others here have reached: your students need to be better educated before they arrive at Tiny Community College. Unfortunately, from what I read about education at the K-12 level these days, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

  10. I hereby second the “gag me with a spoon” comment regarding Gen Eds. Yuck, they truly are gag-erific

    However, I also agree with what you had to say in your post Mrs. Chili. In my World Civ courses, I learned to see ‘civilizations’ as more than dates, and timelines and wars but rather as communities of people living day-to-day lives and creating CIVILIZATIONS out of those lives. Fascinating!

    All in all, I’ve learned to suck it up. It’s only taken me 20 years of schooling to realize that ‘what I put in, is what I get out’ of any class I take whether it’s in my major or not.

    (I’ve also learned to avoid spoons.)

  11. sphyrnatude

    I think I had two categories of gen eds I had to take. The first were the traditional “normal” Gen Eds. They weren’t that bad, and some of them were downright fun (Like explaining to an English lit professor that his understanding of a decaying orbit was just plain wrong, and spending most of a class proving it to him by splattering the physics equations all over the blackboard). I really can’t say much bad about them.
    The second category is a more recent beastie, and usually has some moniker other than “gen ed”. The common term for them is the “PC requirement”.
    In my case, the requirement was a “minority studies” class. Being a long haired hippy freak biker veteran Jewish scientist apparently doesn’t count as a minority (either alone or together), but being a woman does. Anyway, after a few sessions of “women’s studies” where I insisted that I wasn’t responsible for oppressing women, refused to accept the “professors” (I can’t think of a derogatory term that fits someone that is attempting to force dogma down students throats as fact) statements, and instigated debates about the validity of her basic premises, the “professor” suggested that I stop coming to class (apparently, I was preventing her from staying on her schedule by questioning too many of her premises. Besides, some of the other students were actually listening to what I said). I explained to her that I had to attend the class because it met my “PC requirement” (you should have seen her bristle at that). She threatened to fail me if I did not stop “disrupting her class”, and I pointed out that her syllabus clearly stated that the class was a “discussion class”, that grades were based on grades received on papers and tests, and that classroom participation was only worth 5% of the grade. Of course, I also pointed out that I was fully intending to continue presenting my opinions, and supporting them with facts during the discussions. If she chose to grade me based on how closely our opinions meshed, I would be having a series of meetings with our respective Deans and the Ombudsman. A few classes later, she pulled me aside, and told me that I had earned an A in the class, and there was no need for me to continue attending. She balked a bit when I insisted on having that in writing, but she did finally relent. Having met my “PC requirement”, I stopped bothering attending the class. She did follow through and give me the “A” though….

  12. Anonymous

    gen eds suck.

    • Anonymous

      While I agree with you, I believe you should learn to voice the reasons why you believe “gen eds suck.” Otherwise, you look like a complete idiot who serves as an example for the people who believe that Gen eds are actually important. They look at you, and they think: “this is exactly why we need gen eds, so people can learn to think.” They tend to ignore the people who are doing a great job at this whole thinking business, you know…the people who score above 30 on the ACTs, the people who are already well-rounded to begin with, and they then force intelligent, otherwise succesful people into a cycle where they spend valuable time and money on unnecessary courses.

  13. Krissy Ann

    I can honestly say that I am a student who likes the General Education requirements. Not many of my fellow students can say that, at least not the ones I have been in contact with. I have always been able to, if not identify with the subject matter, identify some way the class will help me in my future career.

    The problem comes when I must explain this to my fellow students who just “don’t get it.” Oh well.

  14. Jon

    GenEds are a WASTE of time and money. They are very much a broad overview of grade school. Only they cost 20K a year. Also GenEds are forced upon students if the student ever wants to be sucessful in life. There is no other way to get a degree without taking these courses that are waste of precious time here on earth!!

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