"Try to give your intellect as much food as possible."
- Leo Tolstoy
General education classes aren’t usually a cause for celebration. They’ve been stereotyped—and fiercely so—by college students nationwide as insignificant and uninteresting, with syllabi spilling with “busy work” and required texts. Gen eds are, essentially, just another box to check off on the degree progress report and one step closer to graduation. As a freshman in college, I felt the same way. Faced with statistics, Italian, speech, and economics, exploring the thrilling world of marginal benefit and economic efficiency was, well, hardly thrilling. I had tunnel vision, and a bad case at that, focused on my major classes for the content but on my gen eds for the grade. It was the classic case of “study for the 'A,' then forget everything.” But with time (and multiple completed general eds), I've recognized the joy and value in general education. It's a chance to explore uncharted waters—to learn about something out of your comfort zone from professors who have made that topic their life work. It's a chance to learn from classmates with richly diverse backgrounds, as everyone is bound by the general education requirement but simultaneously following different paths.
This breadth of knowledge is a staple of the college experience. I think we're lucky to have to take general eds; I don't know that I would find the time to pursue things like oceanography, British literature, or reasoning and rhetoric were they not all required. And I truly think I would be missing out had my college experience not been stitched together with underwater storms, Mansfield Park, or the examination of fallacious statements.
Five Classes, infinite lessons:
- Bits of Joy in General Eds -
1. Introduction to the Bible
My previous university had a religion requirement that elicited groans from the religious and non-religious alike. Religion classes had the reputation for being "like, impossible," but it was an unavoidable requirement, and so I tentatively settled into my Bible class day one of sophomore year. This single general education religion class changed my entire life. I fell in love with the material, examining theological underpinnings and researching historical context. I had been feeling for a while that my previous major wasn't my calling, but abandoning a 1/4-completed major seemed impractical and intimidating. Nonetheless, my passion for religion couldn't be ignored: I met with my professor a few times throughout the semester and finally worked up the gritty courage to change my major. Change my path. Start over. Reevaluate. It was equal parts scary and wonderful, as change tends to be. One class altered my entire future plan, as I replaced my goal of writing for a fashion magazine with the ambition of earning a Ph.D. in religious studies.
And how nice does "Dr. Rachel _____" sound?
(insert relevant future last name when I'm married in a billion years.)
2. Oceanography & Marine Biology
Leaving my previous university in pursuit of another meant a year of additional required classes, which of course encompassed subjects that I thought I was done with—namely, science and math. Luckily, California has its perks: my two additional science classes came in the form of oceanography and marine biology. Science became, for the most part, fun again. Labs were completed in a kayak, as salt water sprayed my face, and my triceps (and nose) burned happily in response to being outdoors. I learned about all the different ways a wave can break on shore, why the California coast is so foggy in the summer, and that if I could, I would most definitely be a whale shark.
3. Reasoning & Argumentation
My major character flaw: I like to be right much too much (all the time), and I don't always go about it in the right way. Though most of the time, the "right way" means demonstrating humility and tactfulness (letting go of the petty, insignificant disagreements), my reasoning and argumentation class was fundamentally about how to "fight right" in both oral and written forms. It was in the context of this class that I turned my borderline-draconian view of social media into a written argument, directly countering a peer's argument that social media is fine in moderation. I have written about social media on my blog before (here, here and here), but learning to shape those thoughts into something more calculated and purposeful is a skill that will benefit me forever and ever and ever and ever.
Plus, writing the argument and consequently seeking out evidence helped me feel less alone in my choice to not use social media (although I do have, like, two Instagram pictures which is sort of bizarre for a twenty-year-old). It frequently feels like I'm the only one without a Facebook or a Twitter, so reading well-articulated thoughts of likeminded people was reassuring. There is great joy in exploring ideas different than your own, but the "me too"—someone who feels the same way—is a comfort.
4. Early American History
I have never enjoyed history, which is curious because so much of religious studies is history. And it's enjoyable in the context of religion! I think that A.P. U.S. history in high school left me a bit jaded; I never did remember all of the presidents (which, of course, my A.P. test score shows). But here I am again, in an American history class, and I've taken a different perspective. In reading Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thích Nhất Hạnh, I came across the loveliest thought:
Studying history is, by that logic, an act of respect and a way to nourish our own sense of belonging in the community, nation, and planet. The pages in my American history textbook aren't arduous; rather they are a reflection of "the jewels of our own tradition." I like that.
5. European Literature
Although I study English alongside religion and I love to read, I much prefer writing to reading literature (or so I thought). We read Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Inferno in high school honors English, and I admittedly didn't care for either work. In my college European literature class, however, I found myself swooning over bits of prose and cross-referencing soupçons of history found in the footnotes.
There is something to say for revisiting a work of literature. Some books are a bit dense on the first read. Just as I get used to hot bath water by getting in, getting out, and getting in again (does anyone else do this?), revisiting literature makes a big difference. Besides, I don't think that such venerated works are meant to be read and tossed aside. They need to be dissected, read aloud, discussed, and read again. And even then, we may never "get it." The intentions of ancient Roman and Greek authors sometimes appear to be nothing but a mystery (if you've read the ending of Virgil's Aeneid, WHAT was Virgil thinking? Although... he did pass away before he had the chance to revise the work, and Augustus published it as is. If Virgil had been given the opportunity for revision, would he have changed the ending? The world may never know...).
Joyfully in Christ-
(and my mom let me have chocolate before dinner tonight, so I'm thrilled)