Getting General Education Right?

Harvard prepares to reset its undergraduate curriculum—again.

Sean D. Kelly
Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Following a review committee’s sharp criticisms of the undergraduate General Education curriculum (Gen Ed) published last spring, its chair, Martignetti professor of philosophy Sean Kelly, on December 1 briefed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) on proposed changes. The committee found that the current requirement (that students take eight Gen Ed courses in thematic areas, amounting to one-fourth of their academic work) is shaped by a specific definition of the purpose of an education in the liberal arts: to prepare students for a life of civic and ethical engagement with a changing world, apart from any specialized knowledge they acquire through their concentration. But Harvard has also historically wanted students to acquire deeper knowledge of a field through their concentration, and broader familiarity with other areas through distribution requirements; and has sought to encourage elective courses, among which students can freely choose. (Read the committee’s succinct overview of these alternatives and its full proposal here.)

Triangulating among these approaches, the committee’s recommended reworking of Gen Ed, in effect, embraces all of them: “We propose a structure that does justice to the importance of each of the three motivating philosophies for a liberal arts education, while addressing the problems of identity and size” discovered in the review of the program’s current workings.  Its principal proposals are:

A four-course General Education requirement, to be met by courses explicitly designed for the program. (That means that reflagged concentration courses, which now make up 75 percent or more of the courses for which General Education credit is being granted, would be excluded.)

The courses would fall into four categories:

  • aesthetics, culture, interpretation;
  • individuals, societies, histories;
  • science and technology in society; and
  • ethics and civics.

The first three, roughly, aggregate separate categories within the current, eight-course Gen Ed program, respectively:

  • aesthetic and interpretive understanding, and culture and belief—corresponding to FAS’s arts and humanities division;
  • societies of the world, and the United States in the world—corresponding to the social sciences; and
  • science of living systems, and science of the physical universe, but tweaked to put these subjects explicitly into their social context—corresponding to the sciences and engineering.

The last corresponds to the current ethical-reasoning field.

One “College course” in empirical and mathematical reasoning, in place of the current Gen Ed requirement in that realm. (The committee suggested that this course be taken in the freshman year, but that timing is subject to further consideration, given faculty concerns about congesting the first year, presumably a time for intellectual exploration, given the existing expository-writing requirement or requirements, foreign languages, freshman seminar offerings, and so on.) A separate committee would convene to define the quantitative-reasoning requirement and courses, which might be drawn from current Gen Ed offerings, departmental courses (in mathematics, statistics, or applied mathematics), or wholly new ones.

Three distribution courses, to encourage disciplinary breadth: one each from FAS’s divisions of arts and humanities; social sciences; and natural sciences/engineering and applied sciences. Courses from the student’s concentration could not be used to satisfy the distribution requirement.

Logistics and Implementation

The review committee notes that “General Education courses should be among the best in the College. But they are also the hardest to teach well.” The latter problem arises from multiple causes discussed in the committee’s report last spring. The courses are meant to be neither simply introductions to a discipline for concentrators, nor dumbed-down surveys, but rather, synoptic and integrative in approach. Although some professors embrace the challenge, many faculty members’ natural inclination is to develop and teach courses focusing on their field of expertise and research: concentration classes. They may need both time and support to develop new courses that effectively interpret content, intellectual approaches, and research protocols for a broader student cohort; join that work to the aims of general education; and train and support the required teaching fellows.

Surmounting such challenges involves both creating incentives for the faculty members and providing the required resources. Indeed, the review committee has suggested that implementation of the current version of Gen Ed, beginning in the fall of 2009—during the financial crisis—was hampered by resource constraints. Among the complaints about the Core Curriculum (the predecessor to Gen Ed) was that it offered too few course options for students as they sought to construct their class schedules; the current Gen Ed offerings number more than 100 truly purpose-built courses, Kelly has reported (roughly as many as were typically available each academic year a decade ago, when the curriculum revision began). But the options were padded out by granting Gen Ed credit for hundreds of departmental, concentration courses, which do not fulfill the broader aims of this part of the curriculum.

Accordingly, the committee recommended an array of steps to assure the success of the Gen Ed system it has outlined, ranging from “first-rate course-development” and technology support to paying for course administrators (head teaching fellows who would remain with a course from year to year), training for teaching fellows and assistants, and funding small section sizes (a target of 12 students, and a cap of 14). As a matter of exhortation, departments would be encouraged to embrace Gen Ed as part of their educational mission (alongside their disciplinary, concentration missions), and to “take into account needs of Gen Ed” during searches (as Columbia apparently does, according to the statement of one  speaker during the December 1 faculty meeting).

Making a commitment to generating and supporting Gen Ed courses implies overcoming a structural obstacle that is unrelated to students’ needs. As reported, graduate students in the sciences are typically supported by research grants—so serving as teaching fellows in Gen Ed courses in a sense represents a diversion from their principal responsibility. But arts and humanities graduate students are typically supported precisely through their teaching roles—and so faculty members in those fields have an incentive to offer courses with large enrollments and a lot of sections. Obviously, an undergraduate-centered Gen Ed curriculum needs to overcome those unrelated, structural matters so as to meet students’ learning needs.

Whatever curriculum the faculty adopts, toting up the costs and finding the resources that will attract faculty members to devise and teach Gen Ed courses, and to support them and teaching fellows appropriately, will fall to FAS dean Michael D. Smith.

Finally, the scope, content, and definition of the new course in empirical and mathematical reasoning are to be “curated” by a new committee of faculty members from across the College. Some existing Gen Ed and concentration courses may qualify; they and other offerings will have to be adapted to students’ level of preparation. Unlike the only other required course, the freshman expository-writing class, this Gen Ed offering is to be developed and taught by regular faculty members; filling out the course list may take some time.

That suggests that even if the proposed Gen Ed reforms are legislated in the spring, it may still take another academic year to put the recommendations into practice.

Context on Content

The review of Gen Ed, and faculty discussion of the proposals this year, have differed strikingly from the debate from 2004 to 2007, when the current curriculum was finally adopted. Then, interim president Derek Bok had to lead multiple faculty meetings to sort out professors’ strongly held opinions about the broad fields of knowledge to which students were to be exposed. (In the event, the new review committee has reported, students have typically fulfilled their eight Gen Ed requirements by taking perhaps four courses that genuinely meet the program’s broadening and civic aims, and another four from among the hundreds of more focused concentration courses that have been granted Gen Ed credit.)

This fall, there was almost no public discussion about what subjects students should have to encounter in their Gen Ed classes—either because faculty members who experienced the prior ordeal are wary about undergoing it again (or suspect the outcome of such a discussion would have limited practical effect on what students learn); or because they have come to feel that the review committee’s three-pronged approach (Gen Ed; distribution; a quantitative requirement) satisfies pedagogical or procedural needs better than any other outcome they might pursue.

During the faculty meeting on December 1, two faculty members asked questions about the content of the new, four-course Gen Ed proposal. A professor of history noted that the faculty had been on record requiring students to encounter the past in at least one course. Given the proposed, broadened Gen Ed categories (aesthetics, culture, interpretation; and individuals, societies, histories), it would be possible for a student to satisfy the requirements without any exposure to history. Was that what the faculty intended? And an arts professor, noting the discussions of human difference, diversity, and inclusion under way this autumn at Harvard and on other campuses (matters about which the faculty had heard a full report earlier in the same meeting, from its Committee to Study the Importance of Student Body Diversity), asked whether encountering a course on such matters were not fundamental to a twenty-first-century education meant to prepare students for civic life, as Gen Ed aims to do.

Sean Kelly responded in each case with wariness, saying that there were Gen Ed courses on offer in both areas; that more should be offered; and that students should certainly be advised to take them. But he acknowledged that the broader Gen Ed categories did not dictate the areas to which students should be exposed in this part of their studies, and that attempts to prescribe such requirements would involve the faculty in, as he put it, “chasing shadows,” a pursuit that could be a “slippery slope”—apparently a reference to the heated, messy 2007 debate. Maintaining their apparent posture that this discussion belonged solely to the teaching faculty, neither Dean Smith nor President Drew Faust (her passionate views on race, difference, and history, in the form of a text about historian John Hope Franklin, Ph.D. '41, LL.D. ’81, had been published earlier that week) spoke to the point.

The outcome—a tripartite Gen Ed structure, affording both professors and their students much more leeway in what fields they will pursue and in how they fulfill their requirement for this part of the curriculum—appears likely to be legislated in the spring term. Its ultimate educational effect, therefore, will flow less from a structured set of areas to which the faculty has determined students ought to be exposed, and much more from the incentives and supports provided to elicit such courses from professors; the quality and appeal of the offerings; and the advising students receive as they make their course selections.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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