General Ed, Core Curriculum, or Whatever You Want to Call Required Courses

As you prepare to kick up your heels and enjoy your summer, rising college freshmen are dreaming of the Elysian Fields of college that await. As if you are all starring in a remake of Braveheart, I hear your unified cheers of "Freedom!!"

After the regimented structure of high school, rising college freshmen are usually excited to get to pick their own classes in college (not to mention their own curfew, clothing, and other less obvious decisions about lifestyle choices, but that's not the point of today's rant). I'm often surprised, however, at how many students are unprepared for all the limitations on those choices they will encounter. I’ve found very few incoming freshman who really understand all the different courses needed for various programs, and most lack even a basic understanding of the jargon used to describe these requirements prior to hearing them at orientation. Most assume there will be some requirements in their majors, yet I see shock (if not awe) on their faces at all the courses they must take OUTSIDE their areas of study.


The roots of these requirements are a mixture of practicality, thoughtful consideration of your educational needs, and random adherence to a smattering of traditions. I'm told that, at some point in the distant past, colleges followed a Great Books curriculum. This was a series of major pieces of literature or science you were expected to have read (or at least actively skimmed) to be considered a learned person. This is the modern equivalent of being able to engage in an active discussion of the latest PBS documentary and easily quote the latest outrageous statement from the Jersey Shore's “Situation” within one conversation. As human knowledge has expanded (and taste in programming has degraded -- thanks reality TV), being versed in all key areas has become challenging for all but a few of us.

Recognizing this shift, higher education then turned from the Great Books approach to the liberal arts. While I'm sure Fox News thinks that term is part of some elaborate plot, it essentially replaced Great Books with areas of knowledge. As a result, most colleges and universities require students to take a smattering of courses in a variety of broad subject categories. Nearly all have requirements in math and English, and those are often quite specific on the assumption that you really ought to know how to read, write, and do math before you graduate college. You will likely have more choices of courses in the sciences (many require a lab science), humanities and social sciences. There is a huge difference between humanities and social sciences, but that is a secret known only to a select set of individuals, who may or may not also be part of a secret cabal that runs the world, or at least controls digital cable, and supports many of those Fox News theories -- but that's not important right now.

What is important is how all of this will impact you. Apart from your major, you will need to fulfill some set of these liberal arts requirements, sometimes called general education courses, other times coined core curriculum, and sometimes institutions give these courses their own names, like The Great University Ontological Explication of the Universe or, better yet, Bob or Fred (which I think would be a friendlier approach). Most of these course requirements are fairly similar, although all have some variation in an attempt to demonstrate how THAT school is DIFFERENT.

Many schools increasingly include more business/life skill-oriented courses in their liberal arts requirements. I love teaching the speech requirement at Mason. I'm also impressed that many schools like ours have a technology requirement. Quite a few require foreign language at some level, with many still requiring it for students from non-English speaking countries who have already demonstrated English proficiency. In my book, that makes ENGLISH their foreign language, am I right? But I digress.

High school juniors and younger: You don't need to worry about any of this for the time being.

High school seniors who are about to be freshmen: You should be thinking seriously about these choices. A few items to consider as you do:

Along with the requirements of your institution, there may be additional requirements or specific courses needed to fill those requirements depending on your major and department. This gets REALLY confusing because most regular humans who don't spend their lives in higher education have no idea what organizational structures are like in higher ed, making this extra bizarre and hard to understand. Simply put, your major may need some specific courses to fulfill your liberal arts requirements. So an engineering major, for instance, may be required at some university to have an economics course, which is how they advise you to fulfill your social science requirement. Where this gets extra confounding is when you aren't yet sure of your major (which, in my last post, I told you not to stress about). My advice is to pick your liberal arts/general education/core courses based on the major you MIGHT pick that has the MOST required courses, and try to pick in your first year courses that are requirements for ALL of your possible majors. For most people that is fairly easy in the first few semesters.

This leads to the idea of "double counting." Most college and universities will let one course fill many requirements. If you are majoring in history, your history courses will likely also fill your social science (and/or humanities) requirement. You might also find that your school requires something with the following terms: global, ethics, communication and/or writing intensive, or reasoning. You will usually find a long list of courses in the school catalog that will cover these requirements, and many of those courses might also be needed for your other liberal arts, major, or minor requirements. For example, I took a course in psychology as an undergrad that counted toward both my majors and covered two of my general education requirements.

Of course, many of you are so talented and brilliant and motivated that you will arrive at college already with a significant amount of credit from various sources. Every college accepts and counts that credit a bit differently. In the meantime, enjoy your summer, and just remember that college is there to make sure you become an educated and productive member of society, preferably one who can easily define Elysian Fields as well as correctly execute the Cupid Shuffle. This is proof that higher education evolves -- in my day it was the Electric Slide.

Enjoy your summer, and be seeing you.


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