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A college degree is no longer the meal ticket it once was, which is probably one reason that so much criticism is being directed at higher education in America. Colleges and universities across the nation are evaluating their programs with the stated intent of making higher education more practical and more relevant. From the point of view of many students, the least relevant and least useful component of their college education is the segment of courses variously labeled as core courses, basic studies, or general education. This set of courses typically includes composition, humanities, history, and social and physical sciences. In most American colleges and universities, students complete courses in all these subjects, usually during their first two years of college, before officially selecting a major. Many students feel that these first two years could be better spent taking courses in their majors. However, this segment of courses from various areas of learning is valuable and should therefore be kept in the college and university curriculum.
Opponents of basic education argue that these courses repeat high school courses. Valid college-level basic studies courses, however, explore subjects in greater depth and on a more mature intellectual level than their high school counterparts. For example, college history professors, usually less restricted by outside pressures than high school teachers, may present a more accurate view of such topics as America's treatment of Indians or the role of blacks in American history. In addition, most teachers and textbooks scarcely keep up with the new scientific discoveries and the rapidly changing social, economic, and political scene, so these courses at the college level are not mere repetition of high school material. In fact, college basic studies courses often give students an up-to-date version of material studied in high school.
In addition, these core courses are valuable even when they do repeat high school material. All but the college students who were fortunate enough to attend exceptional high schools can benefit from review. The fact that students have been previously exposed to material does not mean that they have learned the information and concepts. Falling Scholastic Aptitude Test scores in English and math seem to bear this out. Furthermore, most colleges and universities provide testing procedures by which those students with exceptional aptitude or superior high school preparation may be exempted from subjects they have already mastered. Most of today's entering college students, however, can benefit from basic studies. Virtually every college freshman has had some form of high school English, for example, but some have never written an essay. Even students who have written essays may not have had the benefit of careful marking and extensive feedback by their overworked high school English teachers. Considering the wide range of motivation and abilities and the overload of students and extracurricular duties which high school teachers have to contend with, teachers of other subjects also may be unable to give students sufficient time and attention. Therefore, college basic studies courses are needed to compensate for inadequacies in high school education.
Another reason for including basic studies in the college curriculum is the helpful period of time for adjustment. Most college freshmen are just out of high school and living away from home for the first time. Taking courses to which they have had some prior exposure eases the shock of transition from high school to college and provides time to adapt both socially and academically. Furthermore, many students come to college because of parental pressure or because they have been told that they need a college degree in order to survive in a competitive world. Many of these students have only the dimmest notion of what they want to major in. A sampling of various courses can help them locate their interest and aptitude. Students returning to school after several years also find reassurance in the familiarity of general education courses, and many returning students welcome the opportunity to brush up on fundamentals.
Yet another justification for basic studies courses is that they broaden a person's education. Many people value things according to their usefulness in a material sense. Nothing is more frustrating to an English teacher than the student who complains, "I'm going to be a computer programmer. What good will literature ever be to me?" Science teachers probably experience the same frustration when a humanities student questions the need to study physical science. This all-too-common attitude is based on the assumption that the only function of higher education is to teach a marketable skill. The great nineteenth century educator John Henry Newman wrote inÂÂ The Idea of a UniversityÂÂ that "cultivation of mind is surely worth seeking for its own sake . . . ; there is a knowledge which is desirable, though nothing come of it, as being of itself a treasure, and a sufficient remuneration of years of labor." Newman meant that learning is worthwhile in itself, whether you can buy a hamburger with it or not. General education courses support this commendable philosophy.
Admittedly, the subjects being taught in basic studies courses in colleges and universities probably should be taught in high school. But it is futile to discuss what should be done in American high schools as long as teachers are burdened by so many nonteaching duties and by an overload of students of widely divergent ability and motivation. It is unlikely that these problems in public education will be remedied in the near future. In the meantime, basic studies courses might be accelerated so that students could complete them during the first year of college, and students could be given a wider choice of basic studies courses. However, this important component of higher education should not be eliminated at the present time. In fact, general education courses are the heart of life-long learning.ÂÂ