A few weeks ago, I made a friend on the Chicago metro. She was 20 years old and on holiday from Germany, where she's in her final year of university. I know nothing at all about higher education in Europe, so I took the opportunity to grill her about her coursework. As it turns out, she's studying electrical engineering — which, as I learned, means a specialized high school curriculum and three years of university engineering classes. She got off the train at the center of the city, presumably thrilled to get away from the stranger interrogating her about school.
I'm currently trying to schedule my classes for next semester — one last time here at the University of Maryland. I was fortunate enough to have gone to a high school that encouraged taking AP classes, and thus I came in with a veritable mountain of college credits. Fast forward to now, and I'm done with my major and essentially done with two minors as well. My only requirement for next semester: 15 credits of classes. Any classes. Literally anything at all.
It doesn't work that way in Germany. Students don't have general education requirements. Rather, the idea is that one attends university to specialize in a discipline, and it's silly to stay an extra year to take some extraneous classes. After all, it's exceedingly unlikely that an electrical engineer is going to find a practical application for a seminar on the creative process in dance.
I think that's a shame, actually. The pragmatism of treating college solely as a means to a professional end misses out on a key sentiment: "When else?" For the rest of their careers, engineers will be engineering. English majors will be writing. Philosophy majors will be doing, well, something philosophical, probably. What they won't be doing is intermediate yoga or horticulture or speculating about World War IV. When else but now?
I think our education system should aspire to produce students who know a little bit about a lot of things. While I will confess to having been irritated with the spirit of taking classes just to satisfy requirements, I've enjoyed being pushed to take classes outside the scope of my major. College shouldn't be strictly pre-professional. After all, it's pre-adult-life. Adult life is a lot more than just work, and students should be well-rounded enough to cope with that fact.
My upcoming semester of electives means that I'm going to graduate knowing a little more about the intersection of botany and history, mass incarceration and perspectives on gender. I could have graduated earlier — maybe I should have — but I'm glad I didn't. For many of us, college is our last chance to breathe before being forced into adulthood. Might as well try to get something unique out of it. After all, in the words of Canada's greatest living philosopher, you only live once.
Jack Siglin is a senior physiology and neurobiology major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.