Why Gen-Eds and Breadth Requirements Matter

Written on January 20th, 2017

As the popularity of vocational schools rises and that of traditional four-year universities falls, a lot of things are happening in the world of education. I don’t pretend to be an expert on these trends, but I am in a prime position at a renowned public university to observe some of the changes among the mindsets of students.

I frequently hear individuals complaining about general education requirements; they wonder why they have to take an English class when they’re an engineering major or devote three credits to anthropology and philosophy when their dream job is to be an accountant. It’s a fair point and something that I myself have felt over these past three semesters here at Madison; I won’t pretend that I’m super psyched to be taking finance when I want to be a front-end developer. But even though these breadth requirements sometimes mean that I end up in a class that doesn’t really interest me, I still think they’re absolutely vital to my education.

Here’s the thing: some of my most valuable learning experiences have come from courses that on the surface seem to be completely unrelated to my desired future career. I mean, I want to be a web developer, so it seems that I ought to just take a few programming classes, some design labs, and maybe a little bit of marketing, right? It’s true that I could probably function in a full-time position with education that was limited to the tools I would actually use day-in and day-out… but I think I would be a worse employee than I’m going to be when I graduate with all of my general education too.

For example, my microeconomics course changed my life – and I really mean that. It completely altered the way I look at the societies around me and gave me the tools to better understand what happens in my country and my world. Econ may not be directly related to web development, but my intellectual capacity, ability to learn, and interest in important topics all grew as a result of that course.

It was a similar story with accounting, which I walked into last semester full of fear. I’m not a numbers person and although I’m a business major, I’m about as far away from the finance/accounting world as I can be with my studies in marketing and graphic design. In the Wisconsin School of Business every student has to take the introductory level course associated with every major offered here, regardless of their own field of study, which means finance majors find themselves in human resources classes… and this marketing major found herself in an accounting course. I was terrified at first. I was upset that I had to take a course that was so “irrelevant” to me.

But guess what?

It was one of the most satisfying, educational, and downright fulfilling experiences of my life. I challenged myself. I learned new study strategies. I improved my time management skills, engaged with concepts I had never before considered, and left the class with a better understanding of how businesses work. Sure, I may not spend my future creating financial statements – but I will spend it utilizing the skills and thought processes that I honed while in that seemingly “useless” course. I ended up loving accounting, and I never would have experienced it if it weren’t for breadth requirements.

Now, I understand that school is expensive (sometimes ridiculously so). I appreciate that many students want to learn what they need and get out of there as soon as possible; that’s completely valid. Vocational schools and hyper-focused online programs are rising in popularity for a reason, and I commend what they’re doing. But at the same time that I appreciate such streamlined processes, I still think that at least some general education requirements need to exist.

One of the most valuable things in the world is developing the skill of making connections. A professor here at Madison wrote an article about this that changed my life (arguably even more than my Econ class did). The primary idea is this: general education opportunities simply make you a better person by exposing you to a greater variety of ideas, topics, and challenges. I firmly stand by that statement.

When you are in a multitude of different courses on different topics and you find ways to connect the material across academic disciplines and with your own life outside of school, you are becoming brighter. It can sometimes be a challenge when you’re faced with breadth requirements that seem irrelevant to your career goals, but I’ve come to realize that nothing is truly irrelevant if you don’t allow it to be. Sure, it’s a struggle sometimes to see how I’ll use a philosophy lecture on the morality of abortion in my future as a web developer… but I’m confident that the exposure to new ideas, the practice of critical thinking skills, and the mere challenge of finding connections between two unrelated things will serve me well.

At the end of the day, I applaud the general education requirements present here at Madison and I think they should continue. I understand that it can be stressful to take a million unrelated classes, and I think there are many different ways to go about education that are all worthwhile. But for me personally, there’s nothing I appreciate more than the well-rounded range of complementary courses I’m able to get here.

When I graduate, I will not just be someone who can design an interface and build some code. No, I’ll be much more than that. I’ll be someone who can talk competently about financial markets. Someone who can read The Wall Street Journal and understand an article’s implications. Someone who can communicate effectively and speak in front of crowds. Someone who can interact with her peers and superiors. Someone who can engage with philosophical arguments, who can think in the hypothetical, who can appreciate opinions contrary to her own. I will be a strong, well-rounded, educated person.

I couldn’t be more thankful that my academic journey has been – and will continue to be – full of much more than just the classes I strictly “need”. I firmly believe that I am a better person for the challenges I’ve faced and the connections I’ve made, and I have to credit those pesky breadth requirements for a lot of that.

I’ll leave you with a quote that I both love and think is perhaps a bit extreme. Regardless, I find it fitting:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
― Robert A. Heinlein