Beyond the Core

The Task Force on General Education (TFGE), commissioned last spring, has issued a preliminary report suggesting a significant change in College students course of study...

The Task Force on General Education (TFGE), commissioned last spring, has issued a preliminary report to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), for discussion  this fall and possible enactment next spring. The draft, circulated October 3, suggests a significant change in College students’ course of study: abandoning the current Core curriculum, which focuses on “approaches to knowledge” within the separate disciplines and major fields of knowledge, and replacing it not with a loose distribution system, but with a new, structured set of requirements drawn from new kinds of courses intended to “help [Harvard students] to find their way and to meet their responsibilities by providing a curriculum that is responsive to the conditions of the twenty-first century.”

To that end, the task force recommends that students be required to take seven half courses in five “broad areas of inquiry and experience”—cultural traditions and cultural change; the ethical life; the United States and the world; reason and faith; and science and technology—plus three half courses aimed at developing critical skills in written and oral communication, foreign language, and analytical reasoning. The task force also urges FAS to “launch an initiative in activity-based learning,” which could become an added component of general education. Overall, the new proposal would have students fulfill 10 requirements, involving 9 to 11 half courses; the current Core curriculum has 7 requirements, plus expository writing and foreign language—8 to 10 half courses. In this sense, the TFGE proposal is a departure from the more general distribution system discussed, without enthusiasm, in the faculty last spring, where the emphasis on reducing requirements and liberalizing students’ range of choice was not coupled to any particular vision of what they should learn from their non-concentration coursework, nor how.

The task force comprised six senior faculty members, who worked through the summer: Stephen M. Kosslyn, Lindsley professor of psychology; David R. Liu, professor of chemistry and chemical biology; Louis Menand, Bass professor of English and American literature and language; David R. Pilbeam, Ford professor of human evolution; Alison Simmons, professor of philosophy; and Mary C. Waters, Zukerman professor of sociology. They were joined in September by Ryan A. Peterson ’08 and Limor S. Spector ’07.

In a letter of transmittal to the faculty, the task-force members concurred that the Core should be replaced, because its “rationale is no longer compelling,” given shifting disciplinary boundaries and the reality that only a small minority of College graduates pursue academic careers. Nonetheless, feeling the need for some clear rationale for general education, they said that a distribution system fell short: not all departmental courses are truly intended for general education, nor are there good criteria to distinguish the appropriate classes from those truly designed for concentration study. They also concluded that “it has become effectively impossible to reach agreement on a single canon of knowledge (leaving aside whether it is desirable to do so)”—nor would such a unified course of study be “compatible with Harvard’s institutional DNA, which values expertise and, we think, an engaged and outward-looking approach to learning.”

In their report, accordingly, the members advance the rationale for the curriculum responsive to conditions of living in the contemporary world.

Concentration courses and electives, they say, are the essence of “liberal learning—that is, of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of knowledge is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilization.”

Apart from this opportunity to learn about and reflect upon “the human and natural worlds we inhabit,” however, “college is also a preparation for the rest of life,” in both subject matter and “skills and habits of mind.” With more than half of graduating seniors heading for professional school, “The role of general education…is to connect what students learn at Harvard to life beyond Harvard, and to help them understand and appreciate the complexities of the world and their role in it.” By this, the authors are emphatic that they are not suggesting a utilitarian, pre-professional education. Rather, they intend general education to be “the place where students are brought to understand how everything that we teach in the liberal arts and sciences relates to their lives and to the world that they will confront. General education is the public face of liberal education.”

The report is expected to be discussed at an FAS faculty meeting in mid November. It is available on line at

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