Education is more than vocational learning

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As we begin a new semester here at SVSU, many students may be asking why they have to take general education classes that have no apparent connection to their majors. It’s common to hear students ask what philosophy has to do with their computer science degree, or why there is an introductory political science class in their nursing program. I find myself frequently disappointed in my fellow students’ attitudes toward these types of classes and the topics brought up within them. University should be a place for students to expand their minds in all areas, not just learn skills for future careers.

Asking why non-majors should have to take classes on literature, politics or ethics displays a misunderstanding of the purpose of higher education. Universities like SVSU are intended to educate students into being more complete people and better citizens. Learning career skills is an important part of this, but vocational training alone does not make for a well-rounded education.

The argument against general education classes is essentially that all education should be vocational training; that there is no validity in reading the classics, analyzing philosophy or indeed, questioning the current economic and political order. In this view, any class that teaches something other than how to become an economically viable worker is a waste of time and resources.

However, a diverse liberal arts education is necessary to help students eventually challenge the status quo and encourage progress in our society. Today’s liberal arts student could be tomorrow’s great author, theorist, philosopher or dissident. This is seen as dangerous by many who value traditionalist thinking or would prefer that their positions of power and privilege were not critically examined.

Beyond these philosophical points, there are very practical reasons for general education classes. If political science students were not required to take a biology class, they could enter public life without a basic understanding of the science and health issues on which they legislate. Business majors may not enjoy having to take a class on state on local government, but such classes will help them understand how local politics impacts the economy and their future work. Knowledge of basic ethical philosophy is incredibly important in the field of health care, where people’s lives are very much impacted by the ethical decisions of nurses and doctors. Literature classes help students of any major become culturally literate and able to express themselves with the written word.

I hear many students who say they don’t appreciate having to discuss and debate issues in their general education classes, and that these sorts of classroom exercises are better left to students majoring in the given field. Again, these students miss the point of higher education. Having your views challenged may not feel good at the time, but it’s the first step in becoming more open-minded. When students take part in class discussions on politics, current events or philosophy, they may realize their existing views are weak or unsubstantiated and reconsider them. Without this kind of self-reflection, many people will settle into whatever views they were brought up with, regardless of their merits or accuracy. Teaching people how to think critically is a primary goal of university education.

Further, general education classes in which students are required to discuss and write on controversial topics play an important part in the education system of a democratic society. A more informed and tolerant society is better for everyone who lives within it, even those who do not attend university. We cannot expect to live in a society that tolerates difference in opinion and dissent if we don’t have a system of higher education that challenges the views and conventional wisdom of both the student and society at large.

Lastly, it is important to realize that the absence of certain topics in higher education is itself a political and philosophical stance. Those who say that general education classes and provocative topics do not belong in students’ university programs are, whether they know it or not, pushing a viewpoint that the university classroom is not a place where students should be challenged to critically examine the values society has ingrained in them up to that point. This serves no practical purpose for the student, only insulating certain traditional views from criticism and examination.

Civil society requires an informed population to work. Higher education fulfills a critical role in educating young people and helping them become the well-rounded citizens needed to make our civil society function. As a student, you are more than a cog being fashioned for a corporate machine. You are a real person who deserves an education system that treats you as such. Universities should not be run as businesses for the interest of business. They should be run as centers of learning, research and critical analysis for the interests of society as a whole. General education classes may not always be fun or interesting, but they are necessary for this goal and for you to grow as an individual. Eat your vegetables, children, they’re good for you.

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