General education base of all learning

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    By JAMES E. FAULCONER

    A study reported in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” (June 9, 1998) said that 43 percent of college graduates between 30 and 55 would choose a different major if they had to do it over again.

    Those with technical training felt that they had missed something in their education and wished they had taken liberal arts courses; those with liberal arts backgrounds wish they had taken more science and technology. (There were almost as many of the former as the latter.)

    These people are discovering that what they really wanted — and needed — from college was an education rather than only vocational training. General education is one of the elements that provide education and give vocational training a base.

    In the last 30 years, many schools have weakened in their commitment to general education, often called liberal education. Nevertheless, the idea of an education based in the liberal arts (languages, mathematics, the humanities and arts, the social sciences, life sciences and physical sciences) is a long tradition in education, a tradition that begins in medieval times but reaches its zenith in the young American republic of the 19th century.

    It is a tradition to which Latter-day Saints have been committed from the beginning of the Restoration and to which BYU is explicitly committed. The university’s Mission Statement, approved by the Board of Trustees, says:

    “Because the gospel encourages the pursuit of all truth, students at BYU should receive a broad university education. The arts, letters, and sciences provide the core of such an education, which will help students think clearly, communicate effectively, understand important ideas in their own cultural tradition, as well as that of others, and establish clear standards of intellectual integrity.”

    By electing to come to a four-year institution, you have chosen to be part of the tradition of liberal education. By electing to come to BYU, you have chosen to take part in a unique and important variation in that tradition.

    At BYU, we expand the usual notion of liberal (literally “freeing”) education, adding religion requirements to the general education and major requirements. Together, these three constitute the structure of your bachelor’s degree, a tripod that will support you spiritually and culturally as well as vocationally.

    Your major will give you in-depth experience and training in one discipline. Your religion courses will help you continue to deepen your spiritual life and your commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. General education will give breadth to your intellectual and cultural life, and it will help you develop habits of mind that will serve you in whatever vocation you pursue and whatever vocation you may turn to some day. (Today, few people stay in the same vocation their entire lives.)

    The habits inculcated in those who take general education seriously include such things as retaining an interest in questions as much as answers, attending to numbers and numerical reasoning with understanding, careful writing, accurate paraphrase and explanation of what others have said, effective speaking, interest in and awareness of one’s history and an appreciation of those who have gone before us, awareness of other cultures and histories, a willingness to suspend judgment until one has sufficient evidence on a matter and the ability to know when one has that evidence, a desire to conduct oneself effectively in civic space and an ability to do so, the use of reason rather than pseudo-reason and an understanding of the differences, a willingness to collaborate with others in intellectual and other endeavors, an appreciation of a variety of reasoning processes (such as scientific, social science, aesthetic, religious) and aesthetic awareness and sensibility, and a willingness to bathe one’s academic and other pursuits in the light of one’s religious experience and understanding.

    Thus, general education is not a series of hoops through which you must jump like a circus animal. Instead, it is an opportunity to explore different disciplines and to broaden your understanding while, at the same time, certifying your numeracy, language and writing skills.

    Make the most of this opportunity by planning your general education: What habits of mind do you need to strengthen and what courses will help you to do so? What courses will require you to learn to think in ways to which you are unaccustomed? Where are your intellectual weaknesses and which courses will help you strengthen them? Build your major education on a firm base of general education.

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