Roosevelt Montás: How the Great Books Speak to Everyone
With college tuition prices continuing to rise at a ridiculous rate, many young people are abandoning the typical four-year university path, and those who do attend are determined to get their money’s worth. Instead of going to school to learn for the sake of learning, the current mindset of many individuals is to get in, get out, and find a job in their specialized field. The core curriculum, sometimes called the general education program, only gets in their way.
This attitude, while understandable, needs to be corrected. The core curriculum is not worthless and, in fact, adds value to any specialized degree. In his book, Higher Education in America, former Harvard president Derek Bok writes, “Companies find that graduates who have completed a broader, more traditional program tend to adapt more easily to changes in the nature and skill requirements of their jobs and to be more ‘trainable’ for evolving occupational demands than those who have received a narrower vocational training.”
A well-rounded general education exposes students to different fields, allowing them to “learn the language” of each area. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s (ACTA) What Will They Learn® project stipulates that “a well-designed general education curriculum equips students for conversations of perennial human concern and provides a foundation in essential aspects of our political, economic, and scientific systems.” The project rates 1,100 schools on an “A”-“F” scale based on how many of the following seven core subjects they require students to study: Composition, Literature, (Intermediate level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. Each core subject area is essential for preparing students for the duties of citizenship and for success in the workplace.
However, as a college student myself, I have found that not everyone agrees with ACTA’s seven core requirements. Many of my peers question, “Why do I have to take composition in college if my major is engineering?” or “Math and science are okay, but why do I have to take a foreign language? I’m just going to forget it in a few years.” I, admittedly, used to share their sentiments. However, after stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, I began to realize how necessary each subject is for daily life.
Take math, for example, which is frequently deemed worthless by the average student. Although most people are unlikely to encounter abstract calculus problems outside of textbooks, math pops up more often than expected. Debt, personal finance, investments, and interest rates are all familiar, math-based concepts that a typical American runs into on a daily basis and require a basic mastery of math to understand. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to determine if buying or leasing a vehicle will be better in the long run or to grasp the difference between an adjustable-rate and a fixed-rate mortgage.
Strong cases can be made for the other core subjects as well. Students develop high-level critical thinking skills by analyzing complex literary texts, and composition courses equip students to compose coherent emails, memos, and resumes, skills that are necessary in all fields of work. Proficiency in a foreign language helps students learn how to interact appropriately with different cultures and makes them more competitive job candidates. A study of U.S. government and history teaches individuals how to analyze the successes and failures of their country’s past in order to make informed decisions for the present and future, decisions that will hopefully not be repeats of previous mistakes. Students who understand the complexities of our economic system will be able to recognize economic trends, make successful investments, and more accurately assess the decisions of their lawmakers. And while most of us will not become biologists or chemists, the sciences offer a basic understanding of the principles governing the world around us—DNA, atoms, ecosystems, friction—all of which can be applied to real-life situations such as maintaining a healthy diet or knowing not to brake while skidding across ice.
Although the core curriculum might seem like a waste of time at first, careful analysis shows that the benefits it provides are well worth the effort. Students who take a well-rounded course of study are equipped with the practical and intellectual skills needed to tackle real-world situations and are prepared to, in the words of Derek Bok, “live a full and satisfying life.” Instead of throwing out the core curriculum, students should embrace it and recognize its true value. It is one investment they will not regret.
Monica Boryczewski is a rising senior at Franciscan University of Steubenville studying English with a Writing Concentration. She is with ACTA for the summer as an intern working on the What Will They Learn? ® project.
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