Letter to the Editor

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General Education is Fundamental

This is in response to the opinion article published on March 22 by Peyton Finnegan titled, “General Education Courses are a Waste of Time and Money.”

The fact that many college students have a negative attitude about general education requirements is not surprising or new, which is precisely why a greater emphasis and support of the liberal arts is needed so badly on college campuses. The difference between college graduates and college students is that college graduates understand and value the essential communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills that general education coursework provides. This is often difficult for college students to recognize and understand.

The problem driving the misunderstanding about general education among many college students is that most students have been nurtured by a culture of anti-intellectualism and educated in an era of Neoliberal economic policies that have corporatized higher education and reduced education to job training. This is ultimately a negation of both economic and political freedom, as it turns the vast majority of people into passive citizens and complacent workers who can only perform a trained profession until the job becomes obsolete. This strips citizens of political agency and leaves workers vulnerable to economic exploitation.

A quick review of the research will show that employers are desperate for employees who know how to communicate effectively and write grammatically correct emails and reports, have the problem solving skills to deal with problems that arise and who possess good critical thinking skills to foresee problems and improve current practices. Job training alone cannot provide these skills. These skills must be cultivated by a broad-based exposure and mastery of the basic skills of composition, communication, literacy, problem solving, history and critical thinking that general education coursework provides.

Occupations aside, the most important aspect of general education coursework has to do with citizenship. Without a strong commitment to the Liberal Arts, we run the risk of tearing at the fabric of a democracy that is already suffering the consequences of an uninformed and misinformed populace who increasingly lack the necessary tools by which to make informed decisions about policies and political candidates. Education is first and foremost about ensuring that we have a population who possess the skills of citizenship and who understand the personal and social responsibility of being a citizen in a democracy.

Decisions that undermine a Liberal Arts curriculum appear to be the predominant method for dealing with politicians who find it prudent to cut state funding for universities and student financial aid, driving up the cost of education, which then exacerbates the student debt crisis. The solution is not to corporatize our universities and abandon Liberal Arts general education for skills based education but to embrace the Liberal Arts and educate the public about the necessity of properly funding education as a public investment in our future and our country.

In an era of disinformation, this nation needs educated citizens who understand and take seriously the science of global warming and the looming threat of technological unemployment. We cannot afford a population that is divorced from an understanding of the basic structure of government, nor can we afford historical illiteracy that fuels xenocentrism, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and economic injustice. To pursue an education based solely on job training is to be willfully ignorant of the historical context in which we live and the cultural legacy we’ve inherited. General education is about memory, and without memory we are devoid of hope and vulnerable to those who exploit our ignorance and manipulate fear to justify hatred, prejudice, and discrimination.

We cannot be fully free without the Liberal Arts and the general education curriculum. General education courses help us understand that we are more than consumers and workers and that we are first and foremost citizens in a democracy.

Michael Maher

WIU Alumnus

BA 1995

MA 1997

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