Educating Undergraduates

In the new academic year, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) continues its review of the entire undergraduate curriculum. Many details remain to be studied, debated, and settled—among them, the shape and uses of a new calendar with semesters separated by a "January term," and the kinds of international experiences the College will encourage students to pursue. Background materials are available at

But if faculty comment so far is any indication (see "Addition by Subtraction," July-August 2004, page 55), the most important discussions may emphasize broad matters: Harvard's vision of undergraduate learning, its definition of general education in the twenty-first century. To encourage readers to weigh in, Harvard Magazine here offers views of general education from six and three decades ago, in the periods following World War II and during and after the Vietnam era. These materials are followed by brief comments from three senior faculty members about a possible basis for general education today, learning in the humanities, and the challenges of education in the sciences. Dean William C. Kirby has encouraged comment by one and all at [email protected].

~The Editors


General Education

Harvard's undergraduate "Gen Ed" curriculum was conceived in General Education in a Free Society, the 1945 report of an academic committee established two years earlier by President James Bryant Conant. It reflected concerns that Depression-era circumstances had led students to specialize and preprofessionalize their studies, and that distribution requirements had deteriorated in practice. More broadly, it reflected the perceived challenges to modern, Western civilization from economic collapse and the catastrophe of World War II. The report, known as the "Red Book," was widely disseminated and influenced education nationwide.

"The present system of concentration and distribution in Harvard College affords rich opportunities for specialization and, therefore, for differentiation," the committee wrote. "But it is weak indeed in the opportunities it provides for the development of a common body of information and ideas which would be in some measure the possession of all students." In pursuit of such a "substantial intellectual experience common to all Harvard students," the report recommended that, alongside their chosen concentrations, six of the 16 courses then required of undergraduates be devoted to general education, with at least one each in humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Three would be introductory, and three more advanced. The required humanities and social-sciences classes would furnish that common core, "as well as introductions to the study of the traditions of Western culture and to the consideration of general relationships." And so were born such legendary courses as "Western Thought and Institutions," taught by government professor Samuel H. Beer, LL.D. '98.

The Gen Ed curriculum was in place from 1951 until the Core succeeded it in 1979-80. The discussions underlying it still resonate whenever curriculum reform looms. Fundamentally, "The term, general education, is somewhat vague and colorless; it does not mean some airy education in knowledge in general (if there be such knowledge), nor does it mean education for all in the sense of universal education. It is used to indicate that part of a student's whole education which looks first of all to his life as a responsible human being and citizen; while the term, special education, indicates that part which looks to the student's competence in some occupation," though the authors were at pains to stress that the two parts of learning "are not entirely separable."

The challenge to general education, they noted, resides in the practical and intellectual rewards of "specialism"—occupational success and the pursuit of new knowledge. In "an age of specialism" as "the means for advancement in our mobile social structure," the committee wrote, "we must envisage the fact that a society controlled wholly by specialists is not a wisely ordered society." Effecting the required balancing requires schools and universities to recognize that "Special education comprises a wider field than vocationalism; and correspondingly, general education extends beyond the limits of merely literary preoccupation."

Searching for some alternative to mere distribution requirements, given their view that general education is "an organic whole whose parts join in expounding a ruling idea and in serving a common aim," the committee distinguished between "liberalism in education and education in liberalism." Their ultimate goal for the traits "to be sought above all others in every part" of general education included the abilities "to think effectively, to communicate thought, to make relevant judgments, to discriminate among values"—each as "an indispensable coexistent function of a sanely growing mind."

The Core Curriculum

As dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, economist Henry Rosovsky, Jf '57, Ph.D. '59, LL.D. '98, led the debate from 1975 to 1978 that produced the Core curriculum to succeed the General Education system put in place in the College following publication of the Red Book. In a 1990 memoir, The University: An Owner's Manual, he reprises a "standard for liberal education in our time" formulated in one of his annual dean's reports. Its five elements:

  • "An educated person must be able to think and write clearly and effectively."
  • "An educated person should have a critical appreciation of the ways in which we gain knowledge and understanding of the universe, of society, and of ourselves"—involving at least "informed acquaintance" with mathematical and experimental methods of science; with historical and quantitative techniques employed in social analysis; with "important scholarly, literary, and artistic achievements of the past"; and with mankind's "major religious and philosophical conceptions."
  • "An educated American...cannot be provincial in the sense of being ignorant of other cultures and other times."
  • "An educated person is expected to have some understanding of, and experience in thinking about, moral and ethical problems."
  • "Finally, an educated individual should have achieved depth in some field of knowledge."

Rosovsky stresses that any curricular "requirements have to make sense in terms of a coherent educational vision" which the faculty can explain. The requirements should further fulfill "a most important educational function. They assist in creating an atmosphere of intellectual sympathy among extremely diverse students. Those with a passion for humanistic studies will have the opportunity to appreciate the beauties of scientific reason and proof" and vice versa (a goal he suggests the Core met, as initially designed). Finally, he summarizes the limits of curriculum: "The quality of instruction and pedagogical methods...are at least as important." In this sense, and given the learning that students provide one another, "Curriculum is a skeleton. The flesh, blood, and heart [have] to come from the rather unpredictable interactions between teachers and students."

Rosovsky also shares some of the broader principles that informed his own view of general education, within which the Core was shaped in a context of "unusually rapid growth of knowledge," particularly in the sciences, and internationalization:

There can be no scientific definition of liberal or general education because education is not a science.... There is no single truth, but let me cite two views that I have found to be particularly congenial. First:

General education means the whole development of an individual, apart from his occupational training. It includes the civilizing of his life purposes, the refining of his emotional reactions, and the maturing of his understanding about the nature of things according to the best knowledge of our time.

We owe this fine statement written in 1946 to Howard Lee Nostrand, sometime professor of Romance languages at the University of Washington....[N]ote the key phrases: "apart from...occupational training," meaning non-professional and discouraging pre-professional; "the civilizing purposes," implying emphasis on culture and on life beyond earning one's daily bread; and "according to the best knowledge of our time," suggesting the possibility of periodic change.

A slightly different viewpoint comes from John Buchan [speaking at Commencement in 1938]...:

We live in a distressed and chaotic world whose future no man can predict, a world where the foundations seem to be cracking and where that compromise which we have christened civilization is in grave peril. What must be the attitude of those like ourselves in this critical time, those who have behind them a liberal education? For if that education gives us no guidance in such a crisis it cannot be much of a thing at all.

Buchan suggested that a liberal education should endow recipients with three qualities: humility, humanity, and humor. Humility, because "if we are educated men, with the treasures of the world's thought behind us, we shall not be inclined to overvalue ourselves or to claim too much for the work of our hands." For him, humility obviously presupposed knowledge. Humanity, because "We need a deepened respect for human nature. There can be no such respect in those who would obliterate the personality and make beings mere featureless details in the monstrous mechanism of the state." This was 1938. He was undoubtedly thinking of Hitler and Stalin. Lastly, humor: "In a time like the present, when the ties of religion have been sadly relaxed, there is a tendency for popular leaders to exalt themselves in a kind of bogus deity and to think their shallow creeds a divine revelation. The answer to all that sort of folly is laughter." I do not know what was on Buchan's mind, but in the 1980s these thoughts strike uncomfortably close to home.

It bears noting that even as he wrote in 1990, when the Core model of general education was still gathering strength, Rosovsky thought it "reasonable to expect major curricular changes every 25 years or so."


What might be the basis for a contemporary general education—the subjects to be covered in the curriculum review's proposed "Harvard College Courses"—and how should students encounter the material? Saltonstall professor of history Charles S. Maier '60, Ph.D. '67, draws on his own undergraduate experience, and subsequent decades of teaching and scholarship, to advance some suggestions.

Every professor probably starts by being a crypto-canonist. We may laugh at the lists of the indispensable cultural hits periodically promulgated by Mortimer Adler wannabes: the acquis communitaire of the chattering classes. Dare I confess that my parents had a set of The Harvard Classics? Nonetheless, in the words of the new planning document for curricular reform, we still think that our students should be acquiring some shared foundational knowledge. But what should it be? And how should they learn it, or we try to teach it? We aspire to structure but remain uncertain about content.

It seemed easier after 1945: the United States had defeated fascism, it had to oppose Soviet communism. There was a "West" that was liberal and democratic opposed to dangerous powers that were "totalitarian." The common basis of knowledge had to be the background and application of the values we believed in, and General Education was implicitly organized to teach our values, their history, their embeddedness in social systems, their literary expression. The social sciences, with their promise of rational analysis of the common life, and the natural sciences, the great project of modernity, fit in as well. The trend toward secularism, economic development, and modernization was clear.

These assumptions eroded in the 1960s under the impact of renewed ideological clashes: disillusionment with the Vietnam war and the concern that education was becoming too ransomed to producing the administrative class. Students resented the mass lecture, professors wearied of the interdisciplinary and nonprofessional approaches. What Henry Rosovsky and others designed to replace Gen Ed was no longer an effort to teach values—which were in chaos in any case—but methods. Knowledge was professionalized scholarship; there were no common values: ergo, teach how the different branches of learning pursued their insights. We traded in hubris for methodology. Of course, this is too simple: many of the courses could be offered under both pedagogical regimes. "Good and evil" in General Education became "moral reasoning" in the Core; the historical records of the great civilizations were taught under both; the sciences could make their way in both. And no doubt this continuity will continue.

Still, it is time to change the framework. All educational approaches flag after 20 years: Jefferson may have been glib about revolutions in government, but he would have a case about teaching. Faculties re-energize themselves with a periodic thrashing out of the curriculum. How should we change?

The issue is not just one of small classes versus the large lecture. Students want, and the administration rightly seeks to provide, milieus for learning that allow students actively to exchange ideas with full faculty members as well as aspiring younger ones. But the large lecture has always played a major curricular role and the economics of the faculty-student ratio ensures that it will still have to: there simply can't be enough of us to convert the undergraduate curriculum to a series of seminars. Moreover, professors bring different gifts: some can teach memorably through probing Q and A and offer comradeship in genuinely common inquiry; others can convey sovereign mastery—the drama of 1789 or 1989, the elegance of Maxwell's equations—through the lecture. The courses that my classmates remember 40 years out are usually those that featured brilliant lecturers. The good lecture is not just a passive instilling of fact, but an invitation to take part in learning. It can be developed by selecting students to participate (which wakes up the whole hall) in the search for the decisive insight into, say, a poem's "work," or the causes of a war, or the complexity of a natural process.

The real question for renewal of a small-"c" core is what unifying idea will replace that of values (which underlay Gen Ed) or methods (which was implicit in the big-"c" Core). Designation of certain classes as Harvard College Courses does not suffice: this is a concept which, like premier cru, may suggest quality but not substance. Gen Ed and the Core attracted wider notice because they identified a pedagogical agenda as timely and significant. The problem is made more challenging because these courses cannot rely merely on interdisciplinarity, although many should be interdisciplinary. But all our departments and disciplines are in flux and oozing out of their boundaries. And so, too, are the traditional larger areas of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The new core should not be frozen within even these larger categories, which increasingly fail to structure the most challenging advances of knowledge.

My belief is that the conceptual basis of the new core must consist of a commitment to connectivity—in part for all the reasons that bombard us every day as virtual clichés. The first is globalization: the need to deal with a world community and the deprivileging of Western values (or from another perspective, their worldwide diffusion). Second is the new episteme—i.e., the common underlying cog-nitive metaphor—of the network, whether in commerce or computers. Third is the moral or ethical challenge that confronts a highly privileged nation and a vastly privileged university at the beginning of the twenty-first century: neither to vaunt the West's cultural legacy, nor yield to a fascination with our own scholarly skills, but rather to help construct a more decent and rights-oriented and a less unequal global community. At the core must be a sense of connectivity—as a moral premise, as a guiding thread to understanding cultures, as a stimulus for scientific knowledge—to be researched and studied, and to be constructed.

Humanities Education

Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, Ph.D. '60, chosen to present this year's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in May, used the occasion to argue that the arts and "aesthetic endeavor," rather than history or philosophy, should be made central to the study of humanities. A renowned scholar of poetry, Vendler illustrated her argument by analyzing three works of Wallace Stevens. The excerpts presented here are shorn of those examples and her explications, in the interest of focusing on passages in Vendler's text that bear most directly on issues of curriculum and the purposes of a liberal arts education. The complete lecture is available on the National Endowment for the Humanities website (

I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are probably 10 who have seen a Greek marble in a museum, or if not a Greek marble, at least a Roman copy, or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph. Around the arts there exist, in orbit, the commentaries on art produced by scholars: musicology and music criticism, art history and art criticism, literary and linguistic studies. At the periphery we might set the other humanistic disciplines—philosophy, history, the study of religion. The arts would justify a broad philosophical interest in ontology, phenomenology, and ethics; they would bring in their train a richer history than one which, in its treatment of mass phenomena, can lose sight of individual human uniqueness—the quality most prized in artists, and most salient, and most valued, in the arts.

What would be the advantage of centering humanistic study on the arts? The arts present the whole uncensored human person—in emotional, physical, and intellectual being, and in single and collective form—as no other branch of human accomplishment does. In the arts we see both the nature of human predicaments—in Job, in Lear, in Isabel Archer—and the evolution of representation over long spans of time (as the taste for the Gothic replaces the taste for the Romanesque, as the composition of opera replaces the composition of plainchant). The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived—as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms. The case histories developed within the arts are in part idiosyncratic, but in part applicable by analogy to a class larger than the individual entities they depict. Hamlet is a very specific figure—a Danish prince who has been to school in Germany—but when Prufrock says, "I am not Prince Hamlet," he is in a way testifying to the fact that Hamlet means something to every one who knows about the play.

...Our culture cannot afford to neglect the thirst of human beings for the representations of life offered by the arts, the hunger of human beings for commentary on those arts as they appear on the cultural stage. The training in subtlety of response (which used to be accomplished in large part by religion and the arts) cannot be responsibly left to commercial movies and television. Within education, scientific training, which necessarily brackets emotion, needs to be complemented by the direct mediation—through the arts and their interpretations—of feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination.... Students can be gently led, by teachers and books, from passive reception to active reflection. The arts are too profound and far-reaching to be left out of our children's patrimony: the arts have a right, within our schools, to be as serious an object of study as molecular biology or mathematics. Like other complex products of the mind, they ask for reiterated exposure, sympathetic exposition, and sustained attention.

The arts have the advantage, once presented, of making people curious not only about aesthetic matters, but also about history, philosophy, and other cultures. How is it that pre-Columbian statues look so different from Roman ones? Why do some painters concentrate on portraits, others on landscapes? Why did great ages of drama arise in England and Spain and then collapse? Who first found a place for jazz in classical music, and why?... Why have we needed to invent so many subsets within each art—within literature, the epic, drama, lyric, novel, dialogue, essay; within music, everything from the solo partita to the chorales of Bach?...Who has the right to be an artist?...The questions are endless, and the answers provocative; and both questions and answers require, and indeed generate, sensuous responsiveness, a trained eye, fine discrimination, and a hunger for learning, all qualities we would like to see in ourselves and in our children.

...Just as art is only half itself without us—its audience, its analysts, its scholars—so we are only half ourselves without it. When, in this country, we become fully ourselves, we will have balanced our great accomplishments in progressive abstraction—in mathematics and the natural sciences—with an equally great absorption in art, and in the disciplines ancillary to art. The arts, though not progressive, aim to be eternal, and sometimes are. And why should the United States not have as much eternity as any other nation? As Marianne Moore said of excellence, "It has never been confined to one locality."

Education in the Sciences

From the outset, the curriculum review has emphasized the importance of "an education in—not just an introduction to—the physical, applied, and life sciences" as a central part of "the general education we expect of all students" in the present scientific and technological era. So wrote Dean Kirby in his letter transmitting the curricular review report to the faculty last April.

The challenge lies in discovering how to do so effectively. Many students who indicate an interest in science are turned off by introductory courses. Many others, pursuing different disciplines, avoid the courses designed for concentrators and find "science for nonscientists" classes patronizing. Kirby in May announced a faculty committee charged with addressing the problem.

Mallinckrodt professor of physics Howard Georgi '68, Jf '76—the department's director of undergraduate studies, and master of Leverett House—has twice been recognized by the Undergraduate Council for superb teaching. The magazine asked him to comment on science in the contemporary classroom. His response, focusing on concentrators, may suggest more generally applicable themes.

 Teaching natural science at Harvard to concentrators and prospective concentrators is a wonderful experience. Many of the students are brilliant, motivated, articulate, interactive, and sometimes even grateful for our efforts. Many of us who spend a lot of time teaching these fantastic students realize how lucky we are to have the opportunity.

But even under these ideal working conditions, or perhaps because of them, it is very easy to fall into the trap of teaching primarily to the handful of students with whom we communicate best. Slowly, over many years of teaching, I have learned how to avoid this pitfall and to engage more and different students. What works here is not rocket science, or any kind of science for that matter. The most important part of the process is human interaction. The teacher must get to know and care about the students as individuals and the students should get to know and trust the teacher and get to know and work with their fellow students. What one wants to foster is a kind of all-in-the-same-boat atmosphere. Ultimately the students have to do the learning themselves. That requires a lot of hard work, but a good relationship with the teacher can do a lot to motivate them to work hard enough to learn.

This kind of teaching has very little to do with lecturing. Lectures in the natural sciences can be entertaining and fun. They can encourage the kind of atmosphere that leads to effective learning. But almost all of the real learning goes on elsewhere, where the students are struggling with intellectually challenging problems. A little of that struggle can go on in the lecture hall if the teacher uses techniques to make the class more interactive, asking frequent questions and pausing to encourage discussion among students. Two of the large lecture rooms in the Science Center are fitted out with a system in which the students can answer questions in real time by pressing buttons on hand-held remote units. The teacher (and the class) can ask a question and, one minute later, project a histogram of the responses on a screen for all to see. This can also be used to encourage the students to interact with and teach one another. The students love it. This is not technology for its own sake. Like the technical effort that goes into course Web pages, it is specifically designed to encourage human interactions.

I do not believe that there are any one-size-fits-all techniques for effective science teaching. Instead, we should always be working at several different schemes at the same time, because it is important to accommodate as many different learning styles as possible. But the common thread in the schemes that I find most effective is group learning and teaching—students working in groups, discussing problems with one another, in frequent contact with a faculty member or teaching assistant (TA). In my freshman and sophomore courses, this goes on in my office a couple of afternoons a week and, on a much larger scale, in the Leverett House dining hall from about 9 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning on the Wednesday night before a problem set is due.

In these venues, I get to see how the students think about problems and how they interact with each other. This is where I get to know them and they me. The Physics Nights at Leverett now attract study groups from many different physics courses, and a number of faculty members and TAs take part as well. It is quite exhilarating (if occasionally exhausting). The sessions in my office are much more intimate, usually involving from a handful to a dozen students, often with a particular concentration of students who approach the material in unusual ways.

Perhaps the most important and surprising thing I have learned is that there are always a number of students who are tremendously talented and who understand the material very well, but who do very poorly on timed exams. There are many different reasons for this. Sometimes it is simple panic. But often it is related to the kind of idiosyncrasy of thought that we should be encouraging, rather than stifling. In part because of this, I try to avoid even the appearance of competition for grades. And I continue to try to find testing strategies that will reward real understanding rather than just the ability to perform well under pressure. The students are worth the effort.

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