When you start college as an undergraduate, everyone has to take courses in a wide range of mostly liberal arts subjects. The idea behind these courses is to help the college student become a well-rounded individual. One learns to write with precision and power, to read incisively, and to appreciate the world around us. General Ed classes seek to install some of the intangibles that have defined higher education since Antiquity. Usually, the requirement to take these courses gets greeted by a lot of student whining, and one can’t help but recall Plato’s dictum, “That which is learned under compulsion has no hold upon the mind.”
In modern times, and especially in the last 60 years or so, the university system has been pulled in roughly two directions. On the one hand, there is the time-honored tradition of college as a place where you find yourself and define yourself. It is where you learn to think your own thoughts as you study the best that has been thought or said and grapple with excellent minds.
On the other hand, higher education is also where you prepare for a job. Job training is now thought to be the main reason for going to college. There has been for some time a kind of agreement between private business and academia. Academia produces highly trained professionals and the private sector puts them to work. But lately, not only have jobs become fewer, the entire nature of work in America has changed.
When I hear that college is supposed to prepare you to find a job, I want to ask, “Which job? The one you might or might not get when you graduate? The one you find after you are laid off from your first job?” The truth is that for a long time now the working life of a single job for an entire career has become almost unheard of. People routinely pursue second and even third careers, and it’s a good bet that they didn’t take college courses to train for those extra careers.
It’s almost a truism that employers want people who can communicate well, who can write clearly. Where do you learn that? Mostly likely it’s in a General Ed English course. They want people who can think clearly, which falls into any number of GE courses that cultivate the facility for critical thinking and logic.
In other words, what your undergraduate college major may or may not be relevant when you get out into the real world. But the skills you pick up in General Ed may prove to be some of your most marketable.
There is another consideration as well. If you find yourself like so many other Americans, stuck in a lousy economic situation and struggling to keep body and soul together, you can draw remarkable solace from exposure to beautiful art, music, poetry, literature… all that fuzzy cultural stuff that seems to draw the most ire from new undergraduates. General Education was designed to help students gain the ability to appreciate life, but when life kind of sucks because you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills or where your life is going, it really is amazing how immersing oneself in some excellent creativity can nurture the soul. And the biggest irony of all? You can find a lot of it for very cheap or even free. Classical music on labels such as Naxos are very inexpensive, and used CDs cost even less. There are a lot of excellent internet classical music stations out there. Old school texts of poems, essays, and plays are everywhere, and nearly everything of that kind is free from places like Project Gutenberg. Many classics are available as free audio books from LibriVox.org.
In the midst of the great Downturn, even if the world seems hopelessly banal and derelict, read and think great thoughts. Listen to great music. Let a beautiful painting or photograph carry you away. And if you are a college grad, revisit those courses you hated; they gave you the intellectual tools that might just get you through all this.