Are general requirements in college a waste of time?
Over at Quora, Joshua Engel answers a good question: “Are general requirements in college a waste of time?”
Most schools have a core curriculum of some sort, usually including an introductory sequence of basic science and humanities. These subjects typically take up most of freshman year to complete.
What are general requirements there for? Why is it necessary for a software engineer to know about music history or a journalist to know about electricity and magnetism?
On the rare occasion these unrelated things turn out to be useful, couldn’t you just learn them yourself instead of wasting a year of college?
Joshua Engel’s answer to “Are general requirements in college a waste of time?”
Here’s the way I think of it: nobody wants to pay you to program a computer.
Programming, in and of itself, is pointless. It’s a bunch of bits, a bunch of electrical potentials. Nobody cares.
People want you to program the computer to do stuff. They want it to play Angry Birds or show them what their friends are doing or help them write a memo. These are things that people do, not what computers do. The computer is the tool. The human beings are the client.
The point of the general requirements is to introduce you to people: what they think, what they do, what they want. This is where you make money.
Computer people fetishize the programs that they write for other computer people, where the computer is the domain as well as the tool: the Linux kernel, the Apache server, the graphics blitting engines. These are tiny domains, tools for other toolmakers. Computer people would rather write code that writes code than write code.
There is, without doubt, a place for the pure research: the pure mathematics, the high-energy physics, the computer science that’s actually computer science rather than a training hub for programmers. These are important domains that are removed from applications, though even there, there’s a case for understanding the eventual context that your work will fit into. Your “customers” aren’t the papers you write, but the people who will read them. Your coworkers will also be people, and your social connection to them makes you work better, even when what you talk about has nothing to do with pharmacokinetics or Galois fields or whatever “pure” field you’re working in. You have to write proposals, and well-written proposals are going to pay your salary better than poorly-written ones, no matter solid the technical points.
But a larger percentage of STEM graduates are going to do work for actual people, and you’ll do better at it as an actual person yourself. The great video games tell stories, and you’d better be familiar with some great stories yourself. The ergonomics and interfaces of the device you engineer aren’t going to be glopped on top of your brilliant contraption like some kind of awesome sauce. They’re built into it from the bottom up.
The humanities are not another collection of facts to memorize. They are the introduction, the foundation on which your own journey into what it means to be human. If there’s a problem with the humanities requirements, it’s that you’re allowed to get away with a few freshman and sophomore level classes under the impression that you’ve mastered the topics. You wouldn’t consider yourself an expert in engine design just because you took freshman engineering.
These classes are supposed to give you the tools to continue the study on your own. If all you do is get through them and forget them, then you really have wasted your time.
If I could wave a magic wand, I’d make every STEM student double-major in some humanities area. That might begin to make them qualified to actually do something with their STEM knowledge, something that people want. STEM graduates are supposed to be the cream of the crop, and they’re supposed to find the humanities easy. I’d love to see all of them learn music, or history, or Indonesian literature in real depth. Who knows what kind of wonderful applications would come out of it?