A Case for General Education, or Your VFOGI and You

I had occasion to discuss the General Education requirements of a university degree with some friends and colleagues recently, and I came home shrieking to my kids that they need to take advantage of them. (My eldest is applying to colleges in the fall; it’s not like they’re three and five, and I’m raving like a mad woman–much.)
But it seems there are some folks who don’t really get it, so I’m going to make the case I made to my kids.
First, the difference between a university degree and a trade school is GE. You are required to take a number of courses from a variety of disciplines before you “settle in” to your major curriculum. Students who wish violently that they wouldn’t have to take classes they didn’t “need” overlook the fact that most don’t know what they need, really, and even if they did, there is value in knowing a little about a lot of things.

My dear friend’s grandmother called this your VFOGI. VFOGI stands for Vast Fund Of General Information, and for context, she used it to justify spending money on astronomy classes or art exhibits because they made you a more interesting, and she believed, better person. In college my friend and I extended this notion to watching movies we wouldn’t normally be drawn to and trying cuisine we hadn’t grown up with. I admit, I stole the concept shamelessly. 

For me it’s almost a philosophical argument. I believe we should work to become the best versions of ourselves, and learning all sorts of kooky things contribute to that. I believe in the “constellation” theory of humanity—that we are all composed of our experiences, encounters, knowledge, and even the books we read and the television we watch and the people we love and hate. If you believe that, you want to make your constellation as big and varied and interesting as possible.
General Education can be a big part of that. GE classes are requirements to leave your comfort zone.  If you come to college knowing you want to be a doctor and limit yourself to biology and chemistry classes, you confine your life in ways I just can’t support. Doctors go home too, or they should, and they need to be able to do something besides read anatomical handbooks and pathology journals.
If you want to be an English major and never want to take a chemistry class because it’s irrelevant, you just lost half the world–maybe more. You might read a book that makes use of chemistry, but you won’t be  able to tell if the person is a blowhard, and you might not even understand it. And those examples don’t even touch on the value in everyone’s life of psychology or architecture or art history or kinesiology or….
The case for GE is manifold. Lots of students change their majors after taking a GE class because they fall in love with a field they didn’t know enough (or anything!) about before taking the course. If we were all limited to becoming what we knew about by 18, what a terrible waste that would be. I never heard of Chaucer, for instance, until my junior year of college, and I got my job of the last fifteen years essentially based on my ability to teach Chaucer.
Finally, you don’t have to love all your GEs. You can’t change majors as often as you take GE classes, and you wouldn’t want to. But those other classes that don’t change your life still have value. They build the framework of your brain in some very real ways. I took a Cultural Anthropology class in college, and I can’t remember a single individual fact I learned to pass it. But if someone talks to me about anthropology, I can carry on a conversation. The framework is there, so I can learn something new during that conversation. It’s not just like throwing information at my head that bounces back because I can’t follow. Because I took Anthro, there’s a place in my memory for new conversations to stick.

The bottom line is the world is just very, very big. There are so many facets of humanity and the natural world and our societies and our history, that to limit ourselves to learning about one tiny slice seems morally wrong to me. I feel an obligation to stretch my brain; it’s designed to be stretched. I have an obligation to know enough about the world to vote thoughtfully and enough about people to understand those beyond my family and close friends. General Education isn’t the only way to such understanding, but it’s certainly one way.
(The picture is from a campout at Palomar Mountain, where the world looks big and beautiful.)

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