Opinion | Don’t wish away general education requirements

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

I was once a first-year student with a lot of chutzpah — the kind that was fervent in their belief that they knew exactly what they wanted to do, and more importantly, knew what majors and minors would get them there. Clearly, this was not the case.

While I initially groaned at the idea of having to take up to 13 courses in a variety of topics outside of my intended major, the reality is that general education requirements were not only helpful in pointing me toward my current fields of study, but made the task of exploring other areas feasible and constructive.

If used properly, general education requirements can be exciting, enriching opportunities to narrow down your interests, eliminate extraneous costs, customize your education and market yourself to future employers.

The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences notes that these courses are essential elements of its curriculum.

General education requirements are a buffet for your brain — more than just requirements, they are your opportunity to discover interests you never knew you had, all while earning credits toward graduation,” the school’s website said. “GERs prepare you by emphasizing skills employers want (like critical thinking, problem solving, written and oral communication) and giving you the opportunity to become more aware of our increasingly diverse and interconnected world.”

In practice, this is more than a marketing strategy. The Dietrich school has a series of general education requirements that can be satisfied with literally hundreds of courses — writing, algebra, quantitative and formal reasoning, language, diversity, humanities and the arts, global awareness and cultural understanding, social sciences and natural sciences.

There’s no doubt that this list is overwhelming, to say the least. But when considering that these courses can also be satisfied by in-major courses, these requirements make it easy — and even effective — to pursue multiple areas of study.

As an English writing and political science double major and a theater arts minor, my schedule is pretty jam-packed. But because these areas of study all fulfill different requirements, I’m able to complete my degrees and GERs simultaneously without needing to pack my course load with an excess of irrelevant courses.

In fact, when I switched my major from international and area studies to political science, I found that rather than wasting time on global studies courses that didn’t count toward my new major, I had knocked out two of my general education requirements.

Considering as many as 50% to 75% of all undergrads change their major at least once before graduating, I’m clearly not alone in choosing to take a different path. As Jon Marcus, higher-education editor for the Hechinger Report, noted, while changing majors is often an essential step in a student’s ability to find fulfilling job placement, it comes at a price.

“Switching majors is adding time and tuition to the already high cost of college,” Marcus said. “The sobering reality is that some commit to the massive investment in a higher education without actually knowing what they want to learn.”

One essential step in combating the obstacles associated with a change in plans are general education requirements. These courses not only expose students to what may become their field of study, but make use of credits that may not apply toward a new major.

A survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that employers highly valued categories such as knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility and integrative and applied learning. Anthony Siciliano, the executive director of education at Southern New Hampshire University, said GERs foster these qualities and make students more hireable applicants.

“For students to be adequately prepared to do well in their chosen career, they need to have not only the rigor of an academic education but also an applied, relevant and practical curriculum that focuses on the development of these core skills,” Siciliano said.

In essence, employers want engineers who can understand the area in which they work, health care workers who can also effectively communicate with patients, sales representatives who calculate and process statistics and, in general, employees who are multifaceted and well-rounded.

This goes beyond marketability. A petition calling for all undergraduates to be required to take a Black studies course as an additional GER has nearly 7,000 signatures. Sydney Massenberg, a 2020 Pitt graduate due to begin studying at New York University School of Law in the fall, started the petition and said it could be instrumental in educating students on anti-racism in America.

“During my time as a Pitt student, I’ve always felt as though all my nonBlack classmates would benefit from learning more about what it means to be Black in America, but I knew that many of them would be able to graduate without taking such a class,” Massenberg said. “This lack of knowledge has negative consequences in university communities across the country, and I want Pitt to lead the way in making a real change.”

Yes, I may have schlepped my way through algebra and psychology, but I have been able to cater the vast majority of my GERs toward my specific interests and needs — both academically and personally. Global History of Terrorism proved exceptionally applicable to my foreign policy courses. Introduction to Microeconomics helped me understand where my money comes from and how to invest and save effectively. Introduction to Performance introduced me to the department in which I would soon declare a minor. The History of Developing Countries exposed me to the harsh realities of our world and the steps needed to engage in productive activism.

General education requirements can — and should — be viewed as a way to enrich your learning, both as a future employee or employer and, more importantly, a human being. 

Julia is a rising junior studying English writing, political science and theater arts. Write to Julia at [email protected].