In my last #DenninInsights post, I introduced a common question that students often ask faculty: “Why do you teach certain courses?” While this question can certainly relate to how faculty decide which subjects they want to teach, I find that students are usually asking why certain courses exist at our university. For instance, many students challenge the necessity of taking general education (GE) courses.

For students, fulfilling GE requirements may seem like just another set of boxes they need to check off in order to earn their degree. However, there is value in having students branch out and take courses outside of their chosen major. One of the more obvious benefits of GE courses is that they offer students the opportunity to explore different disciplines and perhaps discover a passion for a subject they didn’t even know existed! 

We have GE requirements because there are concepts and skills that we would like all students to have a level of familiarity with as part of the undergraduate experience. A great example of this is UCI’s Writing Requirement. All students must fulfill this requirement because being able to express yourself clearly in writing is a valuable skill, regardless of what academic field or profession you want to pursue. 

While both of these examples illustrate the importance of GE requirements, I personally believe that the value of GEs goes deeper than this. 

One of the fundamental benefits of attending a research university is interacting with people that are at the forefront of discovering and creating new “knowledge.” I put knowledge in quotes because I mean it in the most general sense. Too often, our view of research and knowledge generation is very centered on scientific knowledge generation, and the very mention of research evokes visions of people in lab coats. But, in actuality,  there are many ways we learn about ourselves and the world we live in, and research takes countless different forms.

At the university, research and exploration occur through artistic, humanistic, social scientific, and scientific approaches to knowledge generation, to name a few. I should emphasize that as humans, we also gain insight and knowledge through different cultural and social experiences and perspectives. Unfortunately, not all of these approaches are represented in higher ed. So my reflections are limited to what is formally taught at a university.

Additionally, as a physicist, I am approaching this discussion from my specific experience with GEs. I want to preemptively apologize to my colleagues in other disciplines, as I will likely miss key elements when commenting on fields outside of STEM. Finally, I would like to express that my goal here is not to represent all ways of knowledge generation (that would require a much longer treatise); my goal is simply to give a sense of why I believe GEs are a necessary component of undergraduate education.

In the 21st century, there is a predominant sense that science is the fundamental way to learn about the world. Despite recent, disturbing trends of anti-science sentiment, there is still implicit widespread agreement that proof of truths occurs through evidence, and evidence is obtained through observation and measurement. This is the core of the scientific approach to knowledge generation, and it has been incredibly successful at describing the physical world and, more accurately, providing a mechanism to make reliable predictions about the behavior of physical objects. 

What’s amazing is that scientific principles and methods can successfully explain or be applied to an increasing number of highly complex situations. That being said, the scientific approach to knowledge generation has its limits. For example, science does not interpret human experience or provide answers to fundamental questions of ethics. Students who are majoring in STEM fields must explore other approaches to knowledge generation in order to broaden their perspectives and overcome the limitations of adopting a purely scientific approach—GE requirements offer this necessary exposure. Similarly, for students who are not majoring in the sciences, it is critical to learn about how science works and what it can and cannot do in order to engage with the results of scientific exploration in a significant way. This is the ultimate goal of UCI’s Science and Technology Requirement.

Transitioning to questions about what it means to be human, the arts and humanities strive to explore the human experience at its deepest levels and translate that experience to forms that can be meaningfully shared. I personally learned the importance of engaging with the arts and humanities when I was an undergraduate. For instance, while I always enjoyed things like music and live theater, it wasn’t until I took GE courses in film studies and contemporary art that I developed a real appreciation for the impact of the arts and how they explored and communicated the human experience. 

Similarly, while I was always interested in subjects like history and English thanks to my love of reading, I had the perception that the humanities were fundamentally concerned with studying historical events and interpreting the past. It was only when I started taking humanities courses at the university level that I came to better understand how the methods and approaches utilized in the humanities are critical to understanding who we are now and who we want to be in the future. 

Taking GE courses in the arts and humanities forever changed my perspective of the human experience, the past, the present, and the future, and I truly believe it has made me a better scientist and person. At the end of the day, exploring these disciplines increased my toolkit for understanding myself, the world around me, other people, and the different life experiences that we often do not have direct access to—and who doesn’t want more tools at their disposal!

When it comes to the social sciences, I will admit that I didn’t have much exposure to this discipline while I was in college. It was only after interacting with my colleagues in the School of Social Sciences and my daughter who specializes in sociology that I gained an appreciation and deeper understanding of the social science approach to knowledge generation. As an outsider looking in, I view the social sciences as a critical bridge between the humanities and the sciences. 

The social sciences deal with questions and issues that are too complex for what I consider “traditional physical science” approaches. In order to investigate these complicated subjects, the field of social sciences developed its own tools and methods that blend traditional scientific approaches with artistic and humanistic lenses. Accordingly, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Requirement introduces students to these critical frameworks for understanding society and human behavior. 

Finally, at UCI we have recognized and implemented “new” ways of understanding the human experience and world we live in. Again, I use quotes here not because many of these ideas are truly new, but because too often they are still new to the university structure. On our campus, we have been lucky to engage with these approaches through the Multicultural Studies and International/Global Issues Requirements. These requirements ensure that students begin to understand core elements of the human experience, structures, and systems—especially of oppression and marginalization—that some students might not be aware of because they have had the privilege of not experiencing the negative impacts of these structures. 

These GEs also bring students into contact with a range of cultural approaches to knowledge generation and different ways of being human that are so essential to who we are as a species. Once again, these requirements broaden student perspectives, offer new tools for interpreting the world around them, and encourage the development of diverse and inclusive mindsets.

In the end, the current challenges facing our society require students that can understand and bring to bear a diversity of tools, approaches, and viewpoints to address these issues. It is the goal and purpose of GE courses to provide students with a solid foundation upon which to build. Even if students are really only experts in one set of tools, understanding the limitations of their specific toolset and the strengths of other approaches makes it easier to reach out to those with expertise in these other areas. This allows for the building of the diverse teams required for success! 

And for faculty, it is critical that we continue to assess and evaluate both our GE requirements and the actual GE courses we teach to ensure that we are providing students with the tools and skills we promise the undergraduate experience will bring. It may sound dramatic, but in many ways, the future of our society depends on getting GEs right!