College: Do You Want Your Money’s Worth?

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In its mission statement, Appalachian State University aims at “providing undergraduate students a rigorous liberal education that emphasizes transferable skills and preparation for professional careers” as well as “maintaining a faculty whose members serve as excellent teachers and scholarly mentors for their students.”  Such rigor means that the foremost activity of Appalachian students is an intense engagement with their courses. Students should expect to spend two to three hours of studying outside of class for every hour of in-class time. Hence, a 15-hour academic load will require between 30 and 45 hours per week of out-of-class work. Being a full-time student is a full-time job.

Yes, it’s a job you pay to do, rather than one we pay you to do.  Education is also the one thing people buy for which they don’t worry about getting their money’s worth.  Sad, but true.   But maybe it’s a concern with getting their money’s worth that leads some students to ask: Why should I take a course outside of my major–such as First  Year Seminar or these General Education courses?  

Good question. And good thing Steve Jobs of Apple didn’t think taking a calligraphy course would be a waste of his time.  His overall interest in aesthetics made his product better than his competitor’s.  Good thing Pablo Picasso didn’t see his visit to the Paris museum of ethnology as a waste of his time; for his encounter with the sacred African masks there inspired some of his most celebrated paintings.  Why did Thomas Jefferson pack notebooks, measuring tools, and other instruments of discovery daily into the pockets of his pants, which he designed just to hold them all?  Why do some of your favorite rock musicians listen to classical music or read poetry, or dabble in computer programming?   Because it turns out that anyone great has a variety of interests, and can make new and novel connections between seemingly separate areas.

So, just how do you get your money’s worth?  How do you turn out to be a learned citizen poised not only to support yourself but to solve problems, invent great new things, and lead a good life?

In a world as global and interconnected as it is today, you’d be poorly prepared if you had just one skill set that comes from one academic discipline.  Often the most amazing learning comes through serendipity and risk taking.  So, your education is not like your Netflix account, where if you liked The Hunger Games then you’ll see World War Z suggested to you.  In college, you might find yourself intellectually turned on by a topic or method of investigation you’d never heard of and that you would have thought has no bearing on your future career or life trajectory.

We want your time at Appalachian to be mind-blowingly amazing, helping you see the world in new ways. We want you to be cosmopolitan citizens ready for a connected global century. But being cosmopolitan requires that you reach for people and perspectives unlike your own, and that you consider yourself a citizen concerned with the entire world. It’s not as simple as vacationing in Bermuda, listening to Reggae music, or eating sushi.  (Those things make you a global consumer, not a global or cosmopolitan citizen.)

So, next time you hear a fellow student complain that he has to take courses across a spectrum of subjects in the General Education curriculum, or complain that her first year seminar, the very first Gen Ed course, is outside of her major, remind that person that the real world is global, and it’s not divided up into academic disciplines.

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