Education for Life

After three years of inconclusive work on a new general-education component for the College, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) appears to be debating seriously a proposal that would replace the current Core curriculum. The Core, adopted in 1978, focuses on “approaches to knowledge” within major disciplines (see The faculty showed little enthusiasm for a proposal, advanced last year, to supplant the Core with a loose distribution system (requiring only that students take three courses each from humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences).

Now, FAS is focusing on a new set of requirements and 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.” So wrote the Task Force on General Education (TFGE), commissioned last spring, in a preliminary report released on October 3 (see The committee’s work, discussed in an FAS meeting on November 14, has prompted lively exchanges about the purposes of undergraduate education and the means to achieve them.

For additional information see our special Web report, "General Education Gains"

The task-force members began their work by “spelling out a clear rationale” for general education, their co-chair Alison Simmons, professor of philosophy, told the meeting. That rationale, she said, is grounded in the conviction that a liberal-arts education matters to students because it makes them more reflective about their beliefs and choices, more self-conscious and critical, more creative in solving problems, and more perceptive of the larger world. (Departmental courses taken for concentrations and as electives, the October report says, 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.”)

Alison Simmons
Photograph by Stu Rosner

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.” The authors emphasize that they are not suggesting a utilitarian, pre-professional education. But with more than half of graduating seniors heading for professional school, 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.”

In this context, the task-force members wrote to colleagues, the Core curriculum should be replaced, because shifting disciplinary boundaries and the reality that only a small minority of College graduates pursue academic careers have undercut its rationale. “Distribution requirements,” they found, fail to distinguish general-education from concentration courses. As for a “great books” approach, they 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.”

The rationale that stood out, Simmons reminded the faculty, is defining general education as a way of making explicit “the value of a liberal-arts education for life.”

The task force members then fleshed out that construct by outlining seven subjects and three skills in which students would be required to complete courses. They drew in part on their own expertise. (In addition to Simmons, the members are: 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, the second co-chair; David R. Pilbeam, Ford professor of human evolution; and Mary C. Waters, Zukerman professor of sociology. They were joined in September by Ryan A. Peterson ’08 and Limor S. Spector ’07. Stephanie H. Kenen, assistant dean and lecturer on the history of science, served ex officio and provided staff support.) But they also consulted widely with fellow professors—a process that continued throughout the fall.

The October draft recommends that students be required to take seven half courses in five “broad areas of inquiry and experience” (with suggested new and existing course offerings in each):

  • cultural traditions and cultural change, spanning literature, music, the arts, classics, and associated fields;
  • the ethical life, addressing moral reasoning and ethical theory—for example, by investigating medical dilemmas or problems in global justice;
  • the United States and the world, with two courses, one providing perspective on American history or institutions in global context, and one putting other societies in perspective and in relation to a world of which the U.S. is a part;
  • reason and faith, addressing the reality that religion is “a fact of twenty-first-century life” as well as “realpolitik,” so that students “understand the interplay between religious and secular institutions, practices, and ideas”; and
  • science and technology, introducing key concepts, their social context, and methods of inquiry through courses in life science and in physical science.

Complementing these substantive requirements would be three half courses aimed at developing critical skills in written and oral communication; foreign language; and analytical reasoning (statistics, game theory, and the like). The task force also urges FAS to “launch an initiative in activity-based learning” that could become an added component of general education, linking course work to extracurricular activity in a way to be specified by a separate committee.

Overall, the proposal departs sharply from the faculty’s earlier focus on reducing requirements and liberalizing students’ range of choice, apart from any vision of what they should learn from their non-concentration coursework, or how.


Reactions to the TFGE proposal addressed both its rationale for general education and the specific course requirements. At the FAS meeting, Beren professor of economics N. Gregory Mankiw said that, given the competing visions of general education, it would be best to forgo a vision for the curriculum and have students acquire some degree of breadth in their studies. Reid professor of English and American literature Philip Fisher focused on what he felt a University faculty does best—teaching methods of inquiry—and so advocated something along the lines of an updated Core curriculum. Wolfson professor of Jewish studies Jay M. Harris put the issue in its broadest context: should general education be defined by disciplines and their methodologies, or by broader areas of inquiry (which might well be inter- or multidisciplinary)? He opted for the latter, and most participants in the debate seemed, at least implicitly, to agree.

The broadest critique of the proposed requirements was that the task force had, in effect, drawn up a post-9/11 curriculum, too shaped by current events. Loker professor of English James Simpson told how, in a task-force briefing for his department, he had characterized the envisioned general education as “presentist” (focusing only on recent decades) and “managerial” (reducing education to application), with too little room left for study in the humanities. Olshan professor of economics John Y. Campbell thought the study of human behavior was and ought to be considered scientific, a search for universal principles; Buttenwieser University Professor Stanley Hoffmann replied that people are “extremely different,” and that the task force had gotten the balance about right, even though the faculty would surely “haggle” about details. Several speakers, from diverse disciplines, wanted some required exposure to economics. Others worried that “faith” and “reason” were uncomfortably juxtaposed in the academic context, or that the course descriptions were excessively U.S.-centric.

Louis Menand
Photograph by Stu Rosner

The haggling, though, seemed aimed principally at refining the task force’s vision. Indeed, Simpson said he had voiced his criticisms chiefly to put them on the record; a letter by the task force prepared for the faculty meeting showed how much its thinking had benefited from consultations, and addressed many of his objections.

In that letter, dated November 9, the task-force members noted that the “historical, comparative, and theoretical perspectives that liberal education provides” could enlighten and empower students for the rest of their lives. In describing general-education courses using “present-day topics” as examples, the members wrote that they did not intend to prescribe subject matter, but only to remind professors that connections between class content and the real world could be an effective pedagogical device (as in the new introductory life-sciences and physical-sciences sequences). As for including more work in humanities (both the study of culture and the development of students’ critical and aesthetic understanding), the task force said, “We agree.”

Concluding the November 14 meeting, task-force co-chair Menand said, “[T]he main hope the group had was that the faculty would be able to have a substantive discussion about what general education ought to be. We are having that discussion.” If the momentum persists (see this website for updates), FAS may be able to legislate this spring, thus turning from plans for a new curriculum toward implementation.

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