General-education classes strengthen democracy

Colleen E. Wynn and Elizabeth Ziff


Higher education faces a new wave of attacks from Republican politicians. In 2022, legislators in 36 states introduced 137 “educational gag order” bills, a 250% increase from 2021.

Further, the American Association of University Professors recently documented 57 bills in 23 states aimed at controlling what faculty can teach. While not all bills target general education courses, specifically, many target its content, such as readings on race, gender, and sexuality.

These attempts at censorship work because most people have a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of general education.

General education’s purpose is to provide students with a well-rounded education spanning topics such as math, science, English, social sciences, and the arts. It also teaches students critical thinking, written and oral communication, project management, and more.

It’s much more than learning facts and figures and how to prepare for a job. These classes allow students to learn about the connections between professional fields, how systems and structures fit together, and the ways that all of these areas fit into a broader society.

Exposure to a variety of disciplines, ideas, and people enriches individual lives as well as the health of society as a whole.

Cutting general education hampers students’ chances of success and their adaptability in the workplace. While many think that the primary goal of higher education is to receive a degree in one’s chosen field, the reality is that the workplace is not necessarily linear.

The majority of college graduates say they are working in a field that is not related to their degree. This is not new, as 10 years ago another study found that 73% of college graduates work in fields that are entirely unrelated to what they studied in college. And it is estimated that workers will have approximately 12 different jobs in their lifetimes.

So, for most students, choosing a college major is not the same as choosing a career. The breadth of disciplines in the general-education curriculum ensures that students are exposed to multiple schools of thought, transferable skills, and complex and creative thinking.

The benefits of general education extend beyond the effect on individual lives. Researchers at Georgetown University found that higher education can mitigate authoritarian tendencies by promoting independent thought, respect for diversity, and the ability to assess evidence.

To be sure, college costs have increased dramatically in recent decades. It is understandable that students and their families might want to minimize the number of courses they take while in college and complete their degrees more quickly.

Colleges and universities, and in turn, families, need more government support to make college more affordable and accessible. Reducing general-education requirements may help reduce the number of courses a student takes, but it also limits their exposure to the skills necessary for success after graduation.

We must all be wary of the increasing attacks on higher education and the general-education curriculum. These educational “gag order” bills impede the growth of individuals, society, and democracy.

General-education courses provide the expansive tool kit students need to be successful in the ever-changing workplace. Removing general-education requirements hurts students in the long term. Employers value college degrees because they teach a breadth of skills and prepare students for the workplace.

We must push back when legislation infringes on learning opportunities. Politicians need to stay out of the classroom. Students should demand their education not be censored. And faculty must take seriously their responsibility as educators and ensure that they provide a well-rounded and comprehensive education to all students.


Colleen E. Wynn, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Ziff, Ph.D., are assistant professors of sociology and co-directors of the Community Research Center at the University of Indianapolis.

More Stories In Opinion