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John Harvard's Journal

Educating Students for Life

January-February 2009

Charles S. Maier

Charles S. Maier

Stu Rosner

On a Wednesday afternoon in a Sever Hall classroom, students are discussing the Nuremberg Trials. The point of the trials—to punish those responsible for Nazi atrocities—is well known. But Saltonstall professor of history Charles S. Maier tries to push students beyond a simplistic understanding that crimes were committed and justice delivered.

Why did the charges in these cases not emphasize the targeted effort to wipe out the Jewish people? Maier notes that genocide had not yet been codified as a crime by any state or transnational body (the term had only recently been coined) so the prosecutors had to work within the existing framework of international law.

A student raises his hand and expresses the opinion that there are some actions that are universally morally offensive, whether they violate the letter of some law or not. “If somebody has done something wrong,” he says, “there should be a way of trying them.”

Suddenly, the class has made a leap from analyzing one concrete example to discussing whether universal moral principles exist—or whether, on the contrary, these principles arise from cultural context. In such moments, the new general-education curriculum approaches its goal: to introduce undergraduates to ways of thinking about the world that will shape their lives beyond college. This stands in opposition to the Core curriculum now being phased out, which placed more emphasis on introducing students to approaches used by academic disciplines or sets of disciplines. Maier’s course, Ethical Reasoning 12: “Political Justice and Political Trials,” begins with Socrates (who was tried and sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the minds of Athenian youths) and progresses through cases from the French Revolution, the Soviet purges, South Africa, Rwanda, and the U.S. war on terror. Maier looked for trials where English-language sources existed—when possible, students read transcripts of the proceedings. And he looked for “those great dramaturgic moments in which general principles are being debated.”

Maier aims to illustrate how political trials move beyond bureaucracy to broadcast a message about a society’s values. He prods students to consider how, in an international context or that of a nation divided against itself, a given entity gains the standing to command defendants’ attendance and mete out punishment. During the Nuremberg lecture, he notes that in Stockholm in 1967, a group of left-wing intellectuals found the United States guilty of alleged war crimes in Vietnam; the proceeding was considered a show trial, and had no effect beyond symbolism. Then he asks students a provocative question: how would they view an attempt by some foreign or transnational body to try George W. Bush for war crimes in Iraq?


This focus on applied ethics reflects a major difference between general education’s “ethical reasoning” category and the Core’s “moral reasoning” category, whose offerings were limited to the theoretical, says dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris, Wolfson professor of Jewish studies, who taught “If There Is No God, All Is Permitted: Theism and Moral Reasoning” under the Core.

In the arts, three categories from the Core (one focusing on literary texts, one on visual arts and music, and one on cultural epochs in history) were joined into one: “aesthetic and interpretive understanding.” These courses combine the approaches of all three former categories, spanning broad swaths of history, making cross-cultural comparisons, or considering several media within a single course. Meanwhile, two new categories—“societies of the world” and “culture and belief”—broadly map onto the Core’s “foreign cultures.” (Harris himself will teach a course in the second category, “The Contested Bible: The Sacred-Secular Dance.”)

Historical studies—which constituted two categories in the Core—has disappeared altogether, subsumed in other categories, including the two just mentioned and “the United States in the world.” (Maier’s popular Core courses on the two world wars, which he has taught since the 1980s, will be offered in the history department in future years.) Courses in the two new science categories are expected to engage with the history of science when possible. There is also an explicit requirement that students take at least one general-education course that “engages substantially with study of the past.”

The new categories have more fluid boundaries than the old. For example, professor of Slavic languages and literatures Julie Buckler will teach Culture and Belief 15: “The Presence of the Past” this spring. Considering museums, memorials, monuments, and other ways in which people commemorate the past, the new course will analyze the process of constructing a culture and a collective past; its reading list includes theory, but also Pushkin, Nabokov, Borges, and Sylvia Plath. There is an element of visual art and aesthetics inherent in the subjects considered; students will also view films (Eisenstein’s October and Welles’s Citizen Kane).

The Core gave professors a chance to introduce their own discipline to students from remote concentrations. General education asks professors to venture outside their home departments and take a cross-disciplinary approach. “It’s a really exciting model,” says Buckler, who serves on the standing committee that will approve new general-education courses. She says she was challenged to look beyond the post-Soviet sphere she knows best, but found the exercise of assembling the course “exhilarating.”

She believes “a certain sense of bafflement” about general education persists among students and faculty; with the program’s broad principles down on paper (see “College Curriculum Change Completed,” July-August 2007, page 65), the standing committee’s members are now engaged in recruiting colleagues and discussing how they might craft courses that fit these rubrics. “People may not be used to thinking as flexibly as the new categories encourage us to do,” says Buckler.

The general-education principles approved in May 2007, and the first course offerings this past fall, are the product of a curriculum review that spanned four years. Freshmen who entered this year can still fulfill their graduation requirements with the Core if they wish; general education will be mandatory starting with the class of 2013. During the transition, all gen-ed courses will count for Core credit; the list of general-education courses (see www.generaleducation.fas.harvard.edu) is slim, but growing.


Although some of the latter are refashioned Core courses, Jay Harris warns that an identical title doesn’t mean the course hasn’t changed. When professors come before the committee for approval, he says, “we are strongly urging reconsidering assessment, rethinking pedagogy, updating content.”

This is the first major overhaul of undergraduate education since the Core was implemented in the late 1970s. Maier, a member of the class of 1960, has seen the tide turn from general education to the Core and back again. He sees pluses and minuses in both models. “The real virtue” of conducting such an evaluation every few decades, he says, “is to get some of the really good teachers involved in discussing the curriculum and producing exciting courses.”

Gen Ed, Year One

A sampling of courses offered in 2008-09

Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding
Poetry without Borders
Putting Modernism Together

Culture and Belief
Medicine and the Body in East Asia and in Europe
For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures
Institutional Violence and Public Spectacle: The Case of the Roman Games

Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning
(none offered this year)

Ethical Reasoning
Human Rights: A Philosophical Introduction>

Science of Living Systems
Molecules of Life
Understanding Darwinism

Science of the Physical Universe
(none offered this year)

Societies of the World
Germany in the World, 1600-2000

The United States in the World
(none offered this year)

(Students must take one course in each of the categories; there are no exemptions, although students will be allowed to double-count some departmental courses. For a full list of courses, visit www.generaleducation.fas.harvard.edu.)