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John Harvard's Journal

General Education, Finally Defined

March-April 2007

Following extensive consultation with colleagues throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the Task Force on General Education has readied a revised, third version of what undergraduates should be expected to study beyond their concentration and elective courses—the last, most difficult element in the revision of the College curriculum begun four years ago. As this issue of the magazine went to press, FAS members were scheduled to receive the report on February 7 (see www.fas.harvard.edu/curriculum-review), for likely discussion at the faculty meeting on February 13. That would be the third faculty discussion of the subject this academic year, reflecting interest in reaching agreement on a successor to the Core curriculum and beginning its implementation (see “Education for Life,” January-February, page 61).

The task force has consistently articulated a rationale for general education as a part of a liberal education, itself “conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility.” But, the task force emphatically maintains, “A liberal education is useful” in equipping students with the tools they need to “engage with forces of change—cultural, religious, political, demographic, technological, planetary” and to “assess empirical claims, interpret cultural expressions, and confront ethical dilemmas in their personal and professional lives.”

Eight Elements of General Education

The Task Force on General Education’s final proposal for that part of undergraduate studies specifies courses in eight subject areas, in addition to the College’s requirement for some foreign-language proficiency and Expository Writing, a first-year mandate (itself subject to revision, to incorporate instruction in writing and speaking throughout a student’s academic experience). The categories are:

  • Aesthetic and interpretive understanding;
  • Culture and belief
  • Empirical reasoning;
  • Ethical reasoning;
  • Science of living systems;
  • Science of the physical universe;
  • Societies of the world; and
  • The United States in the world.

To that end, the task force recommends general-education courses in eight subjects (see box), broadly covering topics in humanities, social science, science, and quantitative and ethical reasoning, but explicitly not in a departmental or disciplinary way (because that is the work of students’ concentrations). Indeed, to fulfill a general-education requirement, the task force would require that a course satisfy one or more of these goals:

  • preparing students for civic engagement;
  • teaching students to “understand themselves as products of—and participants in—traditions of art, ideas, and values”;
  • preparing students to “respond critically and constructively to change”; and
  • developing “students’ understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do.”

Further, each course would be designed to cover a wide range of material, rather than to specialize excessively. Courses would be intended to help students use abstract or historical knowledge to understand concrete problems. And, most broadly, such courses would aim to “make students aware that all of their coursework makes a difference to the people they will become and the lives they will lead after college.”

The recommendations arrive as the faculty also receives a long report advocating changes to improve teaching (see “Toward Top-Tier Teaching,” page 63). The general-education task force encourages “interactive” learning environments which promote “student engagement,” rather than pure lecture formats, and as much application of basic principles to the “solution of concrete problems, the accomplishment of specific tasks, and the creation of actual objects and out-of-classroom experiences” as possible. Similarly, the task force places general education in the context of other curricular changes already under way, such as updating of concentration requirements, greater emphasis on informed academic advising, and the adoption of secondary fields (in effect, minors; see box below).

Given the full range of academic experiences prescribed for Harvard undergraduates, the task force has put forth a vision of general education it sees as “continuous with the material taught in the rest of the curriculum.…But it is taught in a distinctive way and in the service of distinctive goals. General education is the place where students are brought to understand how everything that we teach in the arts and sciences relates to their lives and to the world that they will confront. General education is the public face of liberal education.”

Major Advance in Minors

As part of the undergraduate curriculum revision, the College has approved more than two dozen departments’ optional “secondary fields,” or academic minors, ranging from anthropology to studies of women, gender, and sexuality. The faculty’s intent is to give students the opportunity “to pursue focused study in one area outside of the concentration, without requiring students to combine their academic interests in a joint thesis project” (many of which have proved difficult for students and faculty advisers alike to master). It is thought that secondary fields, typically involving five to six half-year courses, may encourage students to explore more deeply a field they enjoy without committing to the dozen-course sequences required by a concentration (the economist or biologist interested in classics). Conversely, they may enable students to take courses useful for subsequent professional education, while still indulging in a purely intellectual passion for their concentrations. For details, see www.secondaryfields.fas.harvard.edu.