Letter to the Editor: Gen eds are valuable2 min read
I write in response to Chad Fancher’s “Major Specific Requirements…” (March 16, 2023), arguing that more Gen Ed courses should be offered that count towards the major in order to eliminate what Mr. Fancher calls “unnecessary classes that detract from the true focus of their studies and will most likely not be applicable to their career in the long run.” Thinking back on my student experience, I don’t believe I ever met such a class.
For better or worse (maybe mostly worse!), college is divided into disciplines, which makes it seem like all the knowledge in any one discipline exists in an entirely separate compartment from all the knowledge similarly compartmentalized in another discipline. English is English, and biology is biology. Unless you happen to be interested in writing about nature and the environment, in which case, well, English is biology (and ecology, and a lot more besides). I dare say, biology is also English, and not only because biologists need to write well.
To shift to another science, when atmospheric chemist Dr. Joe Francisco of the University of Pennsylvania spoke earlier this semester at UMW on acid rain and related climate and environmental issues, he paused at one point to ask why it is that we know so much about the impact of acid rain on climate and yet still find it so hard to mobilize people to do anything about it. He directed the question to me, knowing that I’m from a humanities background, and I responded, “failure of imagination.” That’s where literature, art, philosophy, ethics, cultural studies and so much more besides, including perspectives rooted in environmental justice, come in. We can’t keep separating science and culture or we will never develop the tools to capture people’s imagination with respect to the urgent crises we face. Similarly, those of us in disciplines like English need to better understand the scientific foundations of these crises. You just don’t know at the age of 20, and sometimes even at the age of 60, exactly what knowledge-tools you’ll need in life. That’s why Mary Washington, like all of the best liberal arts colleges and universities, emphasizes both breadth and depth in our curriculum. Explore the whole curriculum, or at least as much of it as you can. Take courses that pique your interest. You never know what you’ll learn until you learn it, and you never know in advance how what you learn, especially in a class that exposes you to new ways of thinking, can change the trajectory of your intellectual development.
Professor of English and Chair, Department of English and Linguistics