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Gromotka: Time to fix gen eds

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | SEPTEMBER 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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It’s the fourth week of school, and my afternoon lecture is suffering from an acute case of premature senioritis. The course, which fulfills one of several general-education requirements on my degree audit, is interesting enough. Still, attendance has dropped significantly; it’s perhaps two-thirds of the turnout seen during the first week of class. Some of those who remain are on Pinterest. Some are playing Candy Crush Saga. A handful are sleeping.

Clearly, something’s wrong.

According to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences website, the general-education program at the university is constructed to “provide you with a solid foundation on which to build your education, your career, and, ultimately, your life as an educated person.” But the unfortunate truth is that the prospect of being a well-rounded individual continues to lose value in society, which is correlated with the lack of enthusiasm displayed by students fulfilling general-education requirements.

Their apathy may be explained by the declining quality of general education. According to an annual report issued by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a vast majority of the nation’s universities are failing to provide adequate general education. At Iowa, general education seems more like a series of distractions than a comprehensive program designed to enrich its students.

That’s not to say courses that fulfill current general-education requirements should be cut entirely.

If students come in absolutely clueless about what to study, they should have the option to explore a variety of different classes. The same goes for someone who wants to take a course for fun. But such an arrangement can be accomplished without subjecting every undergrad to hours and hours of gen eds.

For example, Grinnell College — one of the country’s best liberal-arts colleges — has no general education requirements, and its students seem to be doing just fine without a core curriculum.

If anything, required courses should be designed to prepare students for the real world. How many college-age people know how to properly do their own taxes? Or understand what their credit score means? Allowing someone who dreads math the option of fulfilling her or his Quantitative or Formal Reasoning requirement with a personal finance class might, to some degree, prove more fruitful than a course in logic.

The era of scholarship for scholarship’s sake is coming to a close. The nation’s universities are filled today by a generation of young adults taught to view school as the fluffy thing between summer internships — an exercise in cramming for tests in subjects they have no interest in and learning to ride the grading curve.

For many students, life skills and work experience trump a well-rounded education. And for good reason: Check any online job-search, and you’ll see that “entry-level” jobs typically require work experience on top of academic achievement.

Students know this, and it’s a sad truth, but this focus on professionalism diminishes passion about learning at school. There’s no value in extra, irrelevant work.

Whatever the solution, there clearly are problems to address with the current general-education program at the university. The University of Iowa, and other institutions with similar practices, must learn to accommodate students who view college not as an entirely academic pursuit but as a checkpoint on their way to jobs.


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