University of Massachusetts Amherst

UMass Amherst: General Education

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The Value of Gen Ed


History of Gen Ed

Roots in the Renaissance
The concept of General Education or liberal arts education as part of the college curriculum has its roots in the Renaissance of the fifteenth century. Faced with drastic economic and political changes, residents of Italian city states came to believe that a well-rounded education in a broad range of subjects was necessary to equip citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to be engaged, informed and responsible members of society.

American Higher Education
As American higher education moved from institutions that promoted learning for learning’s sake to institutions that focused on preparing individuals for work and careers, many institutions started a movement away from the classical, European model of liberal arts education to the development of a narrower, more selective model of liberal studies. The original mission of American higher education was to prepare college students who were well versed in classic literary works, philosophy, foreign languages, rhetoric, and logic. This model emphasized the importance of a broad-based education that encouraged an appreciation of knowledge, an ability to think critically and solve problems, and a desire to improve society (Duesterhaus 2009).

Land Grant Institutions and Focused Majors

Justin Smith Morrill

In the late eighteenth century, many in American society began calling for a more practical education in our colleges that would prepare students for work immediately upon graduation. In response, schools emerged to prepare teachers, and business schools and other vocational preparation programs became popular. In 1862 the Morrill Act added strength to this educational model by providing federal money to land-grant institutions (including the University of Massachusetts) chosen to develop agricultural and technical programs. By the late 1800s, students on many campuses had the ability to choose courses freely, without requirements, and could select a concentration, or major, in one particular field of study. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many work-oriented fields such as teaching, business, engineering, and nursing had made their way into the four-year College and university curriculum. Vocational and practical education was now a major component of American higher education.

The Debate Rages On
In the mid-twentieth century, a great debate emerged between those in higher education who supported the movement toward specialized and vocational preparation and those who felt that this push to focus on a particular field was leading to overspecialized and narrow areas of study that would be of little use as careers and technology changed. Many supporters of liberal education also argued that specialized study did not contribute positively to the development of society. In 1947, as the debate became more heated, President Harry S. Truman’s Commission on Higher Education called for the development of a balance between “specialized training on the one hand, aiming at a thousand different careers” and a general curriculum that fosters “the transmission of a common cultural heritage toward common citizenship on the other” (Education 1948, 49).

General Education Requirements in American Higher Education
Recognizing the importance of vocational training but still valuing the significance of classical chapeleducation, many colleges and universities began to develop a series or set of courses that all students attending their institution would take prior to graduation. This set of courses became known as general education requirements. This model of curriculum has come to exist as a fundamental component of American higher education (Duesterhaus 2009). According to Stark and Lattuca (Stark 1997), the American Council on Education found that in 1990 over 85 percent of American colleges and universities required all students to complete some sort of general education requirements. The importance of general education was affirmed in a national study conducted by Ernest Boyer for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Boyer 1987, 85). Boyer and his colleagues found that approximately 75 percent of undergraduates in American colleges and universities felt that general education courses “added to the enrichment of other courses” and “helped prepare for lifelong learning."

Today, the courses that make up the General Education curriculum have changed considerably since the fifteenth century, but the ideals and the goals of general education have not. Most educators agree that part of what it means to have a college education is that undergraduate students, regardless of their majors, will have acquired the skills and knowledge to be informed citizens; citizens who are equipped to act responsibly and thoughtfully in society, to make critical judgments, and to enjoy a life dedicated to meaningful service, continued learning and the pleasures of intellectual and artistic pursuits.


Boyer, Ernest. College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1987.

Duesterhaus, Molly Black. Education Encyclopedia - Education Encyclopedia. (accessed February 27, 2009).

Education, President’s Commission on Higher Education. Higher Education for American Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1948.

Stark, Joan and Lattuca, Lisa. Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

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