The United States of America, with its origins as a colony of the British Empire, faced a challenge that African and Asian colonies grapple with almost two hundred years after the American Revolution:
How to create a distinctive identity and in so doing, what should be retained and preserved from the culture and institutions of our former colonial master? The U.S.A. under the guidance of one of its most brilliant Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who did not go to college, took the bold step of creating a new structural approach to designing the curriculum of higher education. The goals included educating common people to be well-rounded in their general knowledge of human abilities and talents and to create an entrprenueral class that would advance the economic goals of the new nation, stimulate inventiveness and invigorate commerce.
To achieve these goals, the European approach which narrowly focused on the development of the skills needed to be a competant professional in a given field was abandoned. This narrow approach was elitist in nature, assuming that the family leadership and social background of the candidate was sufficient to create the well rounded sophistication that characterizes the upper-class.
In contrast, the United States system of higher education has two sub-systems:
1. A chosen major which is career oriented plus a minor, again of your own choice.
2. General Education Requirements. This set of classes requires the student to take a broad range of classes that cover specific fields of study such as science, history, psychology, political science, physical education, and the arts. The student has a limited range of choices within each field. The requirement is to complete a required number of units in each field.
Another goal of the U.S. system was to challenge the cultural assumptions concerning career choice and career longevity that characterized most European cultures and nations. The assumption that one should know what profession or craft to be pursued at age nineteen or thereabouts was abandoned. Introducing the student to a broad range of skills and fields of knowledge allows the possibility of developing a talent and or skill that is not realized or appreciated at a relatively young age.
The national culture of the United States encourages everyone to seek new employment when the level of self-satisfaction has diminished for the present field of employment. If this requires additional education or training, so be it! The work ethic of this nation is based on the principle that output or production is more efficient when the worker is gaining satisfaction from the work done. Successful Americans relax and enjoy themselves in order to return to work in a relaxed and happy frame of mind. Play is used to support work rather than working in order to play.
The final goal of the American system of higher education is to develop sophisticated consumers. The efficiency of the market is increased when the consumer demands more sophisticated and efficient products. More investment in research and development will result from higher demand for efficiency from consumers. Research and development provides careers for educated people thus increasing the return on investment in higher education and its contribution to more cost productive manufacturing.
An important market in the consumer market serves the practitioners of hobbies. The need for a hobby in this culture is an extension of the work ethic. What does “free time” mean to an individual? Many times, a hobby results from something you learned in a General Education class in college. A hobby can develop into a small business or a marketable skill. The result is a second career after retirement.
In conclusion, general education requirements intend to make education a integral part of life. An evolving process that responds to ever-changing needs and views maturity as the opportunity for new challenges. A process that nurtures an introspective attitude that seeks to use time as a valuable asset. A process based on the principle that every day brings new and fresh opportunities to enhance and enjoy life!