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Much Ado About Nothing? How to Approach General Education Requirements

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. In college, course selections—or “shopping,” as we affectionately called it—was both my favorite week and the most stressful week of the semester. Faced with the daunting task of choosing four (only four?!) courses from the labyrinthine course catalog, only to find that all your top choices all met at the same time, is exhilarating… that is, until I realized that I still needed to take that one science course I’d been avoiding for six semesters. Yikes.

As a German literature major, I had thought that I had left my math and science days behind in high school, only to have them return in the form of general education requirements (or “distribution requirements” in Princeton lingo). Every humanities major had to “endure” three STEM courses—one math or computer science course and two science or engineering courses—but the STEM and social science majors had it worse: they had to take at least four humanities courses as well as (gasp!) a foreign language.

There have already been plenty of articles written singing praises of general education requirements: each university seems to have their own “Why Gen Ed” based on historical, psychological, and even more pragmatic “milk your tuition” arguments. Critics abound, too, arguing that the idealism of a “well-rounded” education that will produce a “Renaissance” college student is well-intended, but is misplaced in a time when employability after college is more important: Shakespeare wrote some very wonderful plays, but he’s not going to teach you the programming skills necessary for a postgrad job.

Regardless of your personal opinions, the fact of the matter is that they still are requirements. So, how can you make the best use of a general education requirement?

For me, choosing general education courses is a great opportunity to begin thinking critically and reflect on what you want to get out of your college education. That critical thinking begins with how you select your courses. Which courses do you think have a connection, even a tangential one, to your academic interests? For example, if you are a climate scientist, does the philosophy department offer a course on Anthropocene or animal ethics, or does the comparative literature department offer a course on environmental writing? If you are an art history major, perhaps a civil engineering course on bridges, skyscrapers, and cathedrals can add a quantitative dimension to your interest in Western Medieval art.

If your university doesn’t offer that, do you have a side interest or emotional investment in a particular “real world” issue or topic? If you have been meaning to get more politically involved, it could be very helpful to take a history or politics class on race in the United States or a literature class on Toni Morrison. Have you been reading a lot of news about the pandemic? Try looking for a biology class on epidemiology and infectious diseases or even a sociology class on statistical research.

If the questions above still seem too idealistically-oriented, then perhaps it’s best to view gen ed courses that are not in your major as a much-needed break from your primary academic material. We all can use distance from our research at times, so think of which courses might offer the best refresher for you. Is there a visual or performing art class that you could take to satisfy a requirement? What about a food chemistry or astronomy class that involves a hands-on element? And who knows? You may think you’re escaping from your work only to find that inspiration strikes from an unexpected place: “longest way round is the shortest way home.”

It is likely that you will not come out of our general education requirements a radically different student (or even be able to throw in cliché quotes after a literature class—try to find the ones I threw into this piece!). But bottom line is, keep an open mind. Who knows, maybe that German 101 class you took freshman fall for a language requirement will become your major a couple years later :)

Happy exploring!



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