By Polly Wenlock
The world’s greatest act of illusion is commonly misconceived to be Harry Houdini’s daring midair straightjacket escape. In reality, UCLA’s course creators pull off a bigger stunt every quarter in their representation of General Ed classes as being easy and fun. Just as this article is misleadingly clickbaited, GE’s are appealing in titlage and not their contrasted content.
From Linguistics to Introductory Physics, and right through to the study of 18th-Century Art, GE requirements are ridiculously miscellaneous. Such courses are advertised as an opportunity to learn more about the world, a genuine chance to explore topics outside of one’s major requirements. However, in practice, GEs become a ‘needed challenge’ to the apparently uninspired and irresponsible minds that dare partake in them as credit fillers. It is as though GEs are dedicated to guilting students into moral lessons about life and commitments when they are presented as an opportunity to enjoy learning. Professors teaching GE courses are well aware of the commitment (or lack thereof) that the students taking their courses hold. Given this reality, these GE professors face two choices:
- Create a post-graduate level course with over 20 hours of intense work required each week. This grueling option will weed out the phonies who dare half-ass the course and encourage a new generation of ass-kissing individuals who are so committed to getting a good grade that they’d enter into thesis-level research to achieve a measly four credits. Thereby creating an academic standard impossibly high for students less inclined to grovel.
- Try to inspire students to enjoy the course by producing fun and reasonably demanding intellectual work, with assignments that are stimulating and might produce real interest in the subject. I would argue that this format actually teaches a stronger moral lesson–better to trust everyone and be proven wrong once or twice than to trust no one at all.
A majority of the general education classes offered to students at UCLA follow format 1.
The professors who design these courses create cruel honey traps with alluring yet vague titles and indications of simplicity, inspiring blind trust in whichever unlucky student has selected it for credit benefit. Professors in charge comprehend and often even verbally acknowledge this reality, yet declare their strong opposition to any non-engagement. You’ll know too late that you’ve been ensnared in what appeared to be an easy, enjoyable credit booster but in reality will be an all-consuming nightmare course that will decimate your sleep schedule, personal relationships, and GPA. The subject material is not why these GEs are challenging; they are challenging precisely because the professors structure them as not a consequence but a GOAL.
As an English major, I have taken non-specific GE classes with hundreds of pages of reading assigned weekly, 8+ hours demanded outside of class, and assessments three times a week. To what merit? Newsflash! There isn’t one. Instead of promoting a love for learning, these formats punish students for a casual approach to passing interest. It’s absurd that GEs demand and enforce 100% commitment, embodying blatant disregard for students’ major-specific course loads– let alone the possibility we might have lives outside of academics. A multitude of viable alternatives to the GE system exist and work with tremendous success internationally. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland opt for manual trade-based learning in the place of GE classes. Such systems provide practical life skills valuable in apprenticeship. New Zealand Universities simply have major dedicated course loads and complete a bachelors degree in three years time.
This griping may seem petty. After all, university students signed up for this, didn’t they?
No! University students signed up for (and pay for) a comprehensive education in a select field. GE courses and their random nature do not cater to this. In fact these courses serve no purpose beyond detriment and degradation to student mental health, all repeating the same moral fable of teaching students how to “work hard to achieve”. University students endure GE courses as a painful necessity to accomplish their primary goal–a degree valuable in the workforce. If the GE system must be enforced, and the major course load is already intensive, there is no reason GEs should saddle a student with even more difficulty. The current format holds the issue of creating an abhorrent course load and demands of responsibility from noncommittal learners. Forcing a student to learn a subject that feels unnecessary and quickly moves beyond their scope of interest will turn students off of the subject in the future. Minds forced through tedious weekly assessments and sleep-inducing 100-page readings will not remember the content; rather these frustrated minds will shut down and shut out these negative memories, proving the system totally ineffective.
Format 2, however, allows professors to assign a course load of positive appeal through assessments and educative interactions with materials students wouldn’t otherwise approach in their select degree. If GE classes continue to be mandatory (which they shouldn’t be) they ought not take themselves too seriously. If these courses are required but they serve no real purpose in degree completion, then general education classes should not be graded.
Why do we even have to complete General Education credits and foundations? A popular argument for the American GE system is that it creates more well-rounded individuals. While that is a noble ambition, it flies in the face of the student’s autonomy. Those who pay to attend university are attending to receive a certificate of merit in their field of choice–not to be applauded as “well rounded”. Offering a broad range of subjects to expand interests and encourage curiosity makes sense in high school. As young minds, high schoolers are still finding their passions; seeing as they’re required to be in the classroom anyways, educators should expose them to as many subjects as possible outside of fundamental courses like math and science. But attending university is a choice made by an individual who is legally considered to be an adult. Enforcing these bizarre requirements is disrespectful in its primary assumption that an autonomous individual needs to learn the material that an institution deems valuable and its unwillingness to acknowledge the individual’s choice to attend towards a specific goal or degree plan. Despite the fact that we’re adults who are somehow financing these educational services, the existence of GEs exposes the university’s assumption that (even the best and brightest) students don’t really know what’s best for them. It’s time for institutions like UCLA to trust and support students’ choice to study what they’re truly interested in, and acknowledge their intention to graduate with a specific degree.
If the American education system truly cared about fostering well-rounded students, mandatory GE courses must adhere to proposed Format 2. Being well-rounded is grounded in curiosity. Instead, the General Education classes I took left me with an aversion to approaching topics like modern art, lingustics, chemistry, and Islamic studies again. While I would like to hope my experience is unique, I see my peers experiencing the same struggle. So if GEs are a systemic issue that kill curiosity–thus working contrary to their intended purpose–who are they really benefiting? The students who have their own respective interests and passions? Or the university as a means of milking students for their tuition, course materials, time, and energy. These questions underpin the potential for a serious institutional change aimed at bettering student mental health and faculty treatment of attendees.