Recently, the Board of Governors decided to prevent students at public universities and colleges in Florida from taking sociology as one of their general education courses. This arbitrary decision unnecessarily restricts the choice of students and may have unintended consequences for student success and timely progression toward graduation. This decision may also hurt career preparation in ways that might not have been obvious to the board.
Sociology’s status as a social science rests on its empirically based approach to the study of group structure and social behavior found in large, contemporary, modern societies. This knowledge is important for success in both personal life and a wide variety of careers and professional fields for which understanding how the social world works is key.
Students who benefit from taking sociology as a general education course have a wide variety of potential career paths. They include future nurses, physicians, public health workers, lawyers, corporate managers, business owners, engineers, law enforcement professionals, counselors, teachers, diplomats and performance artists, among many others whose career success depends, in part, on understanding human behavior and social life.
Sociology’s scientific approach to the raw material of everyday social life has many well-recognized career and personal benefits for students with majors outside of the social sciences. For example, the exam that determines entry to medical school (MCAT) contains sociology questions because the medical profession recognizes that this knowledge is fundamental to good health care. Coursework in sociology is recommended as preparation for passing this important exam. Preventing pre-med students from using sociology as a general education course could delay their progression to graduation.
In short, many students would benefit if the Board of Governors changes its decision and allows students to continue to choose sociology as one of their general education courses in the social science category. This doesn’t mean that all students would have to choose this course. There are many other courses in the list of social science options, but there seems no reason to prohibit them from choosing sociology.
I suspect that denying students the right to make this choice might be based on a misunderstanding about what sociology is and does. There seems to be a misperception that sociology is a morass of political opinions rather than a social science. Perhaps it is sociology’s scientific study of contemporary issues that leads to this misimpression. A focus on society and social life as subject matter does require engagement with sometimes contentious and contested terrain, but always with an empirical lens: What are the facts on the ground and what are the fundamental social processes and structures that create those realities?
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One can, unfortunately, only speculate about the Board of Governors’ reasons for denying students the choice to take sociology as a general education course because official communication gives no clear reason for the removal. In fact, the faculty committee charged with making general education course recommendations to the board included sociology in the list of courses from which students could choose. The removal of this option was a last-minute amendment, introduced by state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. against the advice of the board’s own subject matter experts.
It would be a shame to take action to reduce student options in the social science category of the general education curriculum at a time when understanding and managing current events — both domestically and internationally — requires the best tools we have available. Restricting student access to all the tools available to enhance their own success while gaining a scientific understanding of the social processes and structures that drive current events is good for no one. It amounts to burying our collective head in the bureaucratic sands of ignorance.
Fortunately, the Board of Governors has provided a short period for public comment on this and other regulations recently passed. If you would like to leave a comment about the removal of sociology from the choices available to college and university students in Florida, you can do so before Nov. 23 at this link.
John Skvoretz is Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of South Florida and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.