He’s wearing salmon shorts and a vineyard vines polo. Or maybe he isn’t, but he might as well be. He’s making a scene among a small cluster of the sort of engineering students that can’t wait to tell you about how they’re engineering students. He’s mocking the English literature class he was forced to take freshman year, despite his freshman year being long over. He yells about how it was too easy, and yet laments the time he believes he wasted on the class. Incidentally, he probably won’t read this article. It’s no great loss, I suppose.
Students, but specifically STEM majors, have a habit of treating our general education requirements as either trivial or unnecessarily difficult. Of course, our real issue with them is obvious: we came to college to study our majors, not a bunch of things with no immediately recognizable applications to our fields. To a large extent, I fear that this is because we tend to view an introductory class as “a class for people who don’t want to be in this class.” On the contrary, a class outside one’s major is a chance to get acquainted with some of the more interesting parts of a field, without necessarily delving into the nitty-gritty. It’s not an obstacle, but an opportunity. I like to think of gen eds as a neighbor’s dog: all the fun of having a dog without having to care for one.
Perhaps this is the wrong article to be writing in the midst of a series of potential budget cuts that could have devastating effects on the University and its students. However, I struggle to think of a situation in which it would be a good idea to tell overworked college students that they should be doing more work. My position is the following: we frequently forget the value of the liberal arts, or the seven arts that set humanity free. These are grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Though some fields may not have immediately recognizable applications, we study them because they make us fit to take part in society.
Am I wrong to dream of a world where Chaucer and Dickens are shoved down the throats of every student in the school of engineering? I don’t think so. We study literature for a number of reasons, but the primary purpose is our own enjoyment. In addition to this, we frequently forget the value of being a good writer. Did you know that the Writing Center can help you with your lab reports? Presenting your findings properly is as important as the data gleaned from the experiment itself. In many fields, there is a great importance placed on the ability to present information in an organized way. Even in computer science, the human readability of one’s code is an important indicator of its quality, because readable code allows for better collaboration on projects. The skills we utilize in organizing our arguments in an essay find themselves in demand when we attempt to craft elegant code. Similarly, mathematicians have studied models that had no specific application, throughout history, only to later find them perfect for engineering applications. We studied algorithms, for example, for longer than we’ve had the computing power to really make them work for us.
To be fair to the engineers, the opposite applies. Everyone should be doing some amount of mathematics throughout their time at university, including students studying arts and humanities. Even if your chosen career path doesn’t involve habitually solving differential equations, there is solid evidence to suggest that solving math problems develops your ability to think critically and solve problems. In fact, it’s one of the few things you can do to actually make yourself “smarter” in that respect.
Yes, I get it. Employers are rarely looking for people with a particularly diverse set of skills. Rather, they frequently favor people who specialize to a great extent. This is understandable, but, in my opinion, unwise. An eclectic set of abilities is valuable for any profession and, most importantly, for the development of critical thinking and the ability to present information. I genuinely think that college students should be required to take more classes outside their majors. If not for the sake of knowledge or for the proven benefits then at least to drill some appreciation for other disciplines into their skulls.
Eli Udler is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.