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Harvard College

General Education under the Microscope

5.6.15

Sean D. Kelly

Sean D. Kelly

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

General education—the flagship program in the College’s curriculum, consisting of courses from eight categories designed to assure that undergraduates acquire some breadth of intellectual exposure, as well as some grounding in ethical reasoning and the broader responsibilities of citizenship they will assume—has come in for wholesale criticism in its required five-year review.

The review follows a much debated, highly publicized overhaul legislated in 2007 and implemented in 2009 (see below) as a set of courses meant to “connect a student’s liberal education—that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry, rewarding in its own right—to life beyond college.” A seven-member committee chaired by Sean D. Kelly, Martignetti professor of philosophy and chair of that department, reported that “in practice our program is a chimera: it has the head of a Gen Ed requirement with the body of a distribution requirement.” That is, it purports to be under the guidance of a principle or set of principles, but in practice permits students to adhere to those principles only nominally, with courses that “fail to manifest or even identify that philosophy.”

That finding appears in the committee’s briskly written, eight-page interim report, dated February 2015 but brought before the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) for preliminary discussion only on May 5 (see below). It accompanies many listed faults in the program, including these misgivings expressed to the committee—but not necessarily endorsed or accepted—during its outreach to students, professors, teaching fellows and assistants (TFs and TAs), and administrators. The following points come from the report’s longer catalog:

  • Gen Ed occupies no place in the College’s identity. Students report that from the time they interact with the College as High School juniors through the end of their time as undergraduates, the College does little to convey what Gen Ed is or what role it plays in undergraduate education at Harvard.
  • Students and faculty are often unable to articulate the grounding principles of Gen Ed.
  • Many courses that satisfy the Gen Ed requirement do not, either explicitly or implicitly, aim to satisfy the philosophical principles of the Program.
  • Some faculty who teach courses that satisfy the Gen Ed requirement do not know that their courses satisfy the requirement [emphasis added].
  • Students and faculty tend not to understand the distinction between a Gen Ed requirement and a distribution requirement.
    • TFs and TAs find Gen Ed courses among the most difficult to teach.
    • The range of student expertise varies dramatically.
    • Students’ commitment to the courses, as manifested in their attendance and effort, varies more dramatically than in other courses.
    • Section sizes tend to be larger than those in non-Gen Ed courses.
    • There is little Gen Ed-specific training for TFs, and what there is was reported to be ineffective.
    • TFs and TAs are sometimes not experts in the material.

These problems appear to undercut the rigor and intellectual worth of the course offerings:

  • Students report not taking their Gen Ed courses as seriously as other courses.
  • Students wish more Gen Ed courses were worth taking seriously.
  • Students choose Gen Ed courses differently than other courses: they tend to look for low workloads and courses that easily deliver high grades.
  • More generally, students have come to expect high grades for little work in Gen Ed courses; this is a source of dissatisfaction from students and faculty alike.      

A perennial problem for the faculty is generating sufficient courses intended to fulfill the aims of general education: that is, genuinely different approaches to material that are neither simply introductions to a department or discipline for concentrators, nor dumbed-down surveys, but rather, synoptic and integrative in approach. Some professors eagerly embrace the opportunity, but any general-education program requires more widespread support for the demanding work of developing such purpose-built class experiences. The report touches on internal factors that shape any possible general-education pedagogy at Harvard, some of them far removed from the educational aims intended for students:

  • Some faculty, especially those in the Arts and Humanities, have an incentive to teach large Gen Ed courses in order to support their graduate students. Some faculty members report having responded to this incentive by lowering the expected workload for their Gen Ed courses and promising high grades to students.
  • Other faculty members, especially those in the Natural Sciences, have an incentive not to teach Gen Ed courses. They report finding it difficult to recruit qualified teaching fellows, as graduate students are generally funded by grants to support research. In many cases, the level of compensation provided by the College for teaching is inadequate, so that graduate students with a full teaching load must also be partially supported by research funds. This produces a tension between teaching and research demands, and serves as an effective disincentive for advisors to allow their students to teach.

Finally, there is the problem of oversight and implementation for what has become an enormous, sprawling part of the course catalog, far beyond the scope of the former “Core curriculum” replaced by the 2009 program:

  • The Standing Committee on General Education expresses frustration that there is no mechanism for reviewing courses once they are accepted into the Program. They note, however, that with 574 courses on the books, a review procedure would be lengthy and arduous.
  • The Standing Committee also reports a lack of financial support, and more generally a lack of commitment to the Program on the part of the College and University.

Cutting through this litany of diverse complaints, the committee notes of general education that “despite its prominence in every student’s curricular experience, it plays no defining role in the identity of Harvard College.”

Background: the 2007 Curriculum Reform

Some of the problems of definition were raised, but not resolved, during the debate on undergraduate education a decade ago. What began as a review of the entire College curriculum quickly focused on general-education requirements and the desire to overhaul the three-decade old Core curriculum, with its focus on introducing students to different disciplinary “ways of knowing” and modes of inquiry. Students were frustrated by what they perceived as the paucity of Core offerings. Faculty members, as some of the comments above suggest, have structural or discipline-specific reasons for wanting to produce synoptic courses that go beyond departmental, concentration requirements; for others, the incentives to do so are weak, or lacking entirely. Absent some spur, it is difficult to generate such courses, and to guide students to broaden their education; absent some constraints, it is now apparent, it is difficult to lend the general-education curricular component any coherence whatsoever.

As the debate in 2007 took shape, eight general-education areas were outlined. There were many passionate discussions about fields seemingly included or excluded, and attempts at logrolling to secure coverage of areas about which faculty members felt strongly. The subject consumed FAS meetings for much of the spring. Interim president Derek Bok had the stamina to get the proposal in shape for an end-of-term faculty vote , and by 2009, the transition from the Core was under way.

Now, the review committee seems to be saying, the something-for-everyone approach may have the intellectual impact of a pudding: far from the intent of a program accounting for one-quarter of students’ undergraduate courses.

The committee drives right toward the center of this problem, noting that its roots are in part “structural.” It defines other institutions’ approaches:

A distribution requirement [emphasis added], of the sort found at Cornell or Yale, requires that students take courses from a range of different departments. It is motivated by the thought that a good college education is one in which a student learns about a variety of disciplines. One way to develop such a requirement at Harvard would be to require that students take departmental courses in each division of the FAS [Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences] and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It would be typical, with a distribution requirement, for every course in the catalog to satisfy at least one distribution requirement.

By contrast, a general education requirement [emphasis added], of the sort found at Chicago or Columbia, requires that students take non-departmental courses organized around a basic philosophy regarding what kinds of issues, texts, or positions a generally educated person should engage with and to what end. Even if they teach texts or ideas that are presented in departmental courses, general education courses are taught without an explicit disciplinary perspective and with a different range of concerns.

But Harvard’s “chimera” straddles the divide:

About half of the 574 courses that satisfy Gen Ed requirements are “front of the book” [Gen Ed] courses; the other half are “back of the book” [departmental] courses. Most of the “front of the book” courses were designed with the Gen Ed philosophy in mind. But students report that even these courses sometimes fail to situate themselves explicitly in the context of Gen Ed. Many departmental courses were not developed with the Gen Ed principles in mind, and almost all fail to present themselves as Gen Ed courses.

Either approach, the committee finds, could “represent a possible good in an undergraduate education.” Continuing:

A distribution requirement protects students from internal and external pressures to specialize too much and for the wrong reasons. It provides exposure to a variety of disciplinary knowledge and ways of thinking. The value of this broader exposure is considerable in the current context of increasing demand for specialization. A general education requirement also distributes courses. But more importantly it aims to identify the fundamental value of an education and to help students understand the trajectory of their education in that context.

Faculty Discussion Begins: How to Achieve a “Noble Ideal”

At the May 5 FAS meeting—the first public airing of the committee report before the full faculty, and the basis for future discussion and subsequent action—several professors rose to speak by prior arrangement.

As chair of the review committee, Sean Kelly set the stage, reminding his colleagues, “On May 15th, 2007, almost eight years ago to the day, this Faculty passed legislation establishing a new program in General Education, a program that was to stand as the philosophical core of the Harvard College education. Those of you who were on the faculty at that time, as I was, will remember the difficult and sometimes contentious discussions that led to this action.” (His full statement appears at the end of this report). He also sharply laid out the matters at stake:

The committee is convinced that the principles underlying the General Education Program are estimable and sound….But despite extraordinary efforts from many of the faculty members who teach in and administer the program, the implementation we currently have fails to do justice to those ideals. The question the committee now faces, and on which I would like to get your feedback today, is this: What changes to the program can best help it to achieve the noble ideal to which it aspires?

A philosopher, he limned the aspirations of general education for his peers this way:

It is motivated by the thought that, whatever specialized and disciplinary knowledge a student is to gain during his or her time at Harvard, the ultimate purpose of that education is to prepare our students for lives of significance and worth. As Cicero said, wisdom, in its most fundamental form, would have no purpose were it not considered in the context of “the art of living.” General Education at Harvard has always aimed to put a student’s education in this broader context, and in this sense the General Education Program is tightly connected with College’s very mission. As Dean [of Harvard College Rakesh] Khurana so eloquently—and frequently—reminds us, that mission is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders of our country and the world.

The most succinct statement of that mission, he noted, was the principle animating general education, as legislated: “Generally educated students need to have grappled with the very personal question of the duties and obligations, as well as the privileges, rights, and responsibilities, of civic and ethical agency in a dynamically changing world.” But against the aspiration to help students explore “how one should live one’s life as an ethical and civic agent, against the background of social traditions and norms that one may wish either to embrace or to overturn, and in the face of the kind of changes—social, cultural, scientific, technological and otherwise—that constitute the fabric of contemporary life,” the program, as implemented, “is not succeeding.”

If it is to succeed, he said:

The program must have fewer requirements; it must have fewer, better taught, and more focused courses; it must have greater faculty investment; it must have greater financial and administrative support; it must have better pedagogical support for its teaching fellows; it must have smaller section sizes; and it must have greater student satisfaction. These are not minor details, but they are concrete and achievable goals for a program that stands as the philosophical core of the Harvard College education. They are goals that we must set ourselves to achieving. The question is how.

Kelly was succeeded by Bass professor of English Louis Menand, who was one of the leaders in the effort to create general education (his full statement appears below). He acknowledged the problems the committee had identified (“The legislation that produced the General Education program stipulated a review after five years because the faculty could foresee many potential pitfalls. Five years later, we seem to have fallen into most of the pits.”), but strongly restated the case for such an element of students’ studies within Harvard College:

The case for General Education is easy to make. In a nutshell: Harvard students do not become professors. Less than 20 percent of our students go on to get PhDs. Over 50 percent go to law school, business school, or medical school. We are not serving our students well if we offer them, and require them to take, only departmental courses.

A distribution system, which is the lazy default system in American undergraduate education, does not address the problem, because in a distribution system students are still taking departmental courses—that is, courses designed primarily for concentrators. If you are skeptical about the ineffectiveness of distribution systems, I urge you to read the pages on distribution systems in Derek Bok’s book Our Underachieving Colleges. 

Departments don’t normally generate courses for the nonspecialist, or that prepare students for life after college. That’s not their mission. But it is the mission of the college as a whole, which is to say of the faculty. A general education curriculum represents what the faculty believes are the things that every educated person should know, and the skills and habits of mind that every educated person should acquire.

He pointed to the difficulties inherent in generating such courses and teaching, especially at Harvard:

The word general in general education is related to the word generalist. General education courses are not courses for concentrators and specialists. Historically, therefore, there has always been a tension, sometimes even a war, between concentrations and General Education programs. They really are different curricular beasts. Without getting into the bloody details, I can tell you that the year the faculty spent adopting the General Education program was a battle in that war, and that General Education lost. That’s one of the reasons there are too many requirements. If we want to have a cogent and effective General Education curriculum, we have to resist attempts to somehow make Gen Ed serve the interests of the concentrations.

This task is hard everywhere, but it is especially hard at Harvard because of our institutional DNA. Harvard is all about specialization. We are here because we are the best, or because we strive to be the best, or maybe because we have got people to believe we’re the best, at what we do. My speciality is dilettantism. I’m really good at it. So it can be difficult for us to see that although our undergraduates will one day become specialists, too, right now they need education of a much more general kind, aimed at educational goals that are tied to life outside the academy.

And he underscored the importance of general education at a time of increasing skepticism about the value of liberal education—a public attitude that has certainly become sharper since the faculty last debated these matters in 2007:

This is an important moment for universities committed to the principles of liberal education. There is a lot of external pressure on our way of educating people right now, a lot of skepticism about the practical value of what we do. I think that most of that skepticism is uninformed. But it’s out there. General Education is a place where we can make explicit why we believe a liberal education matters.

Donner professor of science John Huth, a physicist (and a highly interdisciplinary teacher), then illustrated a specific value of general education, addressing Americans’ appalling lack of proficiency in basic measures of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving, compared to peers (adult and student) in other developed nations. Departmental courses are not solving the problem, he argued, especially in cases where students have to learn how to grapple with difficult problems in uncertain circumstances where solutions are not readily available (for instance, addressing climate change). He advocated making general-education courses the core of the program, and eliminating departmental courses from qualifying.

[Updated May 6, 2:45 p.m. to identify speaker and quote from his remarks.] The next speaker, Vuilleumier professor of philosophy Edward J. Hall, chair of the faculty's standing committee on general education, noted that the program suffered perhaps less from fundamental structural problems of the sort Menand identified than from the timing of its inception: during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when funds, time, and administrative attention were in short supply. This “inauspicious” birth should not permanently undercut the program, he said, and in fact he detected strong support among students who understood the broader purposes of the general-education courses they took, and among a majority of faculty members whose intellectual energy is essential to creating and teaching such courses. He quoted from an assessment written by Garrett Lam, a student member of his committee, reflecting on the effects an excellent general-education course might have; he talked about getting glimpses of unfamiliar worlds, and then continued:

The other half comes when I’m no longer engaged with that unfamiliar world, but when my engagement with it has changed me, in two ways. One way is effective, when my studies have given me some capacity to act as a better citizen—like when an ethical reasoning course makes me think about institutional corruption in a new way. The other is affective, when my studies don’t change how I act in the world but how I react to it. This past summer, I was sipping lemonade with a friend on a hot day. With chemistry goggles on, what popped up into my mind was how the lemonade’s acidity made me salivate more and that’s what made it so quenching; with literature goggles on, what popped into hers was a Kafka line: “Lemonade, everything was so infinite.” We saw the same thing but it affected us in different ways. The right pedagogy helps us put on the goggles of that unfamiliar world, brightening our own.

To me, this other half, this mesh of effective and affective changes, is what Gen Ed is all about.

"Explain to our students what Gen Ed is meant to be," Hall continued, and they say, 'That’s fantastic; I want one of those.' We should work to give it to them."

During open discussion from the floor, Jayne professor of government and professor of African and African American studies Jennifer Hochschild (a member of the review committee) rose to say that implementation issues aside, the rationale for general education remained compelling. The courses, she said, were the leading example of educational experiences that could truly change how students thought about what they knew, how to live, and how to relate to the world. Graduates of the College, including her daughter, she said, typically remembered a handful of courses as vivid and transformative. General-education courses ought to be those courses, Hochschild said. They are deliberately non- or anti-departmental, and by design went beyond and were apart from the aims of departmental, concentration courses. She strongly opposed adoption of a distribution requirement, and even advocated having nonspecialists teach the general-education offerings.

Tisch professor of history Niall Ferguson expressed in the strongest possible terms his anger at the “disgraceful” points listed in the review committee report concerning faculty members’ suggestions that courses had been dumbed-down to attract students, or created to provide work for teaching fellows more than they were design to educate students. Any such actions “subverted” the purposes and claims of general education, he said; he found them “shocking.” Would any FAS member present defend such actions? he asked. If not, what would the faculty do to reverse these practices, which could only “undermine the morale” of the entire institution.

(Ferguson subsequently shared written comments that he sent to the review committee. He wrote, in part:

My Gen Ed course, Societies of the World 19: “Western Ascendancy: Mainsprings of Global Power from 1400 to the Present," was carefully and laboriously designed to deliver what was intended. It is a course in world history aimed at getting undergraduates to think about the social traditions they have themselves have been shaped by, but also about other traditions. It is intended to pose fundamental questions about civil society— such as, Where did it come from?—and the ethical problems inherent in the rise of Western power. My driving motivation was to devise a history course that would be of interest to all undergraduates, regardless of their ultimate area of academic concentration.

To get back to the program’s principles, he argued, “The correct way forward, if Harvard is not simply to admit its own intellectual bankruptcy, is surely…to purge the Gen Ed Program of all the courses, ‘front of the book’ as well as ‘back of the book,’ that do not satisfy the original philosophical principles of the program.”)

Quincy Jones professor of African-American music Ingrid Monson offered two dissenting notes. General education, she said, had “failed.” Students whom she had polled indicated that they filled out their course schedules before selecting general-education requirements: they always came in last in students’ academic decisionmaking. And since any set of categories for general education would in fact devolve into a de facto system of distribution requirements, it made sense to proceed in that direction explicitly. Moreover, she noted, for all the aspersions cast on “back of the book” departmental courses, her own teaching, and much of the teaching in the College, is already interdisciplinary, and therefore achieves broader pedagogical aims than might seem to be the case.

The last speaker, Leverett professor of mathematics Benedict H. Gross, who was dean of the College during the 2007 debate, rose to endorse Menand’s remarks on the importance of general education. Gross noted that when general education was enacted, the faculty had battled over the categories into which courses would fall. He noted that in any effort to revive the principles of general education, what gets written down (in other words, the degree to which principles of truly general education were maintained, or cut and shaped to fit academic disciplinary constraints) would be of decisive importance.

Renewing Debate on General Education?

Given the conclusion that “Unfortunately, our chimera fails to achieve either aim”—neither encouraging true disciplinary breadth, nor identifying the “fundamental value of a liberal arts education at Harvard”—the committee outlines three courses of action in its report:

  • moving toward a true general-education system, like those at Chicago or Columbia, in part by eliminating departmental, concentration-focused courses from qualifying;
  • replacing general education with a simple distribution requirement—which might put existing synoptic courses at risk if they cannot find a departmental home; or
  • explicitly adopting a mixed model, with clearer, and more limited, requirements for both distribution and general-education courses during each student’s College career. (This is Stanford’s model, according to the report.)

Choosing among these options, or finding some compromise and living with the current state of affairs, is now up to FAS. The faculty was not necessarily eager to conduct that debate in 2007—nor was it readily able to resolve matters then, or apparently, to enforce the decisions it made in that legislation. Whether it will wish to re-engage now and in the fall term is very much the largest open question.

Statement by Sean D. Kelly

On May 15th, 2007, almost eight years ago to the day, this Faculty passed legislation establishing a new program in General Education, a program that was to stand as the philosophical core of the Harvard College education. Those of you who were on the faculty at that time, as I was, will remember the difficult and sometimes contentious discussions that led to this action. But having just arrived from Princeton the year before, where the faculty was then consumed by an equally contentious but somehow less edifying debate about whether it was ok to be giving out As to our students like candy on Halloween night, I remember thinking how proud I was to be part of an institution that reflects seriously on the nature and purpose of the education it offers to its students.

The General Education Review Committee, which Dean Smith constituted last spring and which I am fortunate to chair, has had the privilege to renew this discussion about what we as a community understand to be the significance and worth of what we do as educators and students. Together with my colleagues on the committee – six talented and dedicated faculty members from across the three divisions and SEAS – we have engaged in dozens and dozens of hours of public discussion since last fall – discussions with students, teaching fellows, faculty, and administrators about both the philosophical principles of the program and its current implementation. The committee is convinced that the principles underlying the General Education Program are estimable and sound, and I will say something about how we understand these principles in a moment. But despite extraordinary efforts from many of the faculty members who teach in and administer the program, the implementation we currently have fails to do justice to those ideals. The question the committee now faces, and on which I would like to get your feedback today, is this: What changes to the program can best help it to achieve the noble ideal to which it aspires?

General Education has been a cornerstone of the Harvard College Curriculum since 1946. Its basic impulse, however, is ancient. It is motivated by the thought that, whatever specialized and disciplinary knowledge a student is to gain during his or her time at Harvard, the ultimate purpose of that education is to prepare our students for lives of significance and worth. As Cicero said, wisdom, in its most fundamental form, would have no purpose were it not considered in the context of “the art of living.” [Cic. De Fin, 1.42] General Education at Harvard has always aimed to put a student’s education in this broader context, and in this sense the General Education Program is tightly connected with College’s very mission. As Dean Khurana so eloquently – and frequently – reminds us, that mission is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders of our country and the world.

The current implementation of General Education is the third in a series of programs since 1946 that has attempted to articulate the basic aims of education in our society – attempted, in other words, to articulate what it is to educate citizens and citizen-leaders. The program we currently have is motivated by a single principle:

Generally educated students need to have grappled with the very personal question of the duties and obligations, as well as the privileges, rights, and responsibilities, of civic and ethical agency in a dynamically changing world.

Our program aims to help students with this task. It explores how one should live one’s life as an ethical and civic agent, against the background of social traditions and norms that one may wish either to embrace or to overturn, and in the face of the kind of changes – social, cultural, scientific, technological and otherwise – that constitute the fabric of contemporary life. It is explicitly global in its intent. It is organized therefore around the classical, but also very contemporary, principle that an education should prepare one for an ars vivendi in mundo; an art of living in the world.

Despite this worthy aim, the current implementation of the program is not succeeding. As we outlined in our Interim Report, the main problem is that many of the courses in the Gen Ed program make little attempt to manifest its basic philosophical principles. Students, and even faculty members, are confused about the purpose of the General Education program because in practice it has become a chimerical monster. The head of this monster is a General Education requirement with a clearly stated focus and philosophical aim. But the body of the monster is a distribution requirement, comprising hundreds of departmental courses that, although they teach content or skills that are quite valuable, nevertheless fail to show how these are in the service of the philosophical aims of General Education.

One clear result of this analysis is that departmental courses do not serve the goal of General Education. The departmental course aims primarily to develop disciplinary knowledge and skills. It is a happy side effect of such a course if the student comes to think differently or in a more reflective way about his or her personal obligations or responsibilities. But whether this happens or not the course is successful when the student masters the content and skills it presents. The Gen Ed course reverses these priorities. Its central aim is to unsettle and explore deep-seated assumptions about the significance and worth of a life. It uses content and skills from various disciplines to achieve this aim, of course. But these are just the vehicle for the mature sense of personal, civic, and ethical agency for which it hopes to lay the ground. As we know from the two previous iterations of General Education at Harvard, once the distinction between these aims is lost – once the General Education program includes a high proportion of regular departmental courses – the program loses its identity and its reason for being.

The General Education program that we now have, therefore, mixes two distinct pedagogical goods, and in doing so fails to achieve either well. The value of any distribution requirement is that it protects students from external and internal pressures to concentrate their studies in a deep but narrow domain. The value of our General Education requirement is that it helps the student to think about the responsibilities and privileges of being a civic and ethical agent in the world.

If the Gen Ed program is to succeed at its ambitious aim, a number of changes must be implemented. The program must have fewer requirements; it must have fewer, better taught, and more focused courses; it must have greater faculty investment; it must have greater financial and administrative support; it must have better pedagogical support for its teaching fellows; it must have smaller section sizes; and it must have greater student satisfaction. These are not minor details, but they are concrete and achievable goals for a program that stands as the philosophical core of the Harvard College education. They are goals that we must set ourselves to achieving. The question is how.

I end, therefore, with several questions to focus our discussion. The committee will take this feedback, along with the enormous range of data that we have collected over the last nine months, and prepare a final report to be presented in the fall. The questions on which we would like your feedback are:

1. The Committee believes that a distribution requirement has a pedagogical value distinct from General Education. Should the Gen Ed program be supplemented by a distinct distribution requirement, or should it continue to stand on its own? The first model, which we call a “mixed model” in the Interim Report, would require a student to take a small number of Gen Ed courses and also a small number of regular departmental courses distributed across the divisions. The alternative would just require a small number of Gen Ed courses.

2. The Gen Ed program currently requires that students take eight distinct General Education courses. The committee believes that this is too many. What is the right number?

3. The categories in Gen Ed reflect disciplinary priorities instead of the philosophical principles of the program. How, and by what process, might the categories be adjusted to fit the reduced requirements?

I invite you to give us feedback on these questions, or on others you think may be relevant to the Gen Ed Review.

Thank you.

Statement by Louis Menand

I commend Professor Kelly and all the members of his committee for a report that does not mince words. The legislation that produced the General Education program stipulated a review after five years because the faculty could foresee many potential pitfalls. Five years later, we seem to have fallen into most of the pits. But we have an opportunity to correct our mistakes and reform our program.

As one of many colleagues who was involved in developing the General Education program, I want to say that the committee’s interim report and Sean’s statement today are consistent with what I believe the General Education program was intended to be. I have faith in the committee and look forward to hearing back from them in the fall.

I am speaking today to advise the faculty not to scrap a general education curriculum in favor of a distribution requirement.

The case for General Education is easy to make. In a nutshell: Harvard students do not become professors. Less than twenty percent of our students go on to get PhDs. Over fifty percent go to law school, business school, or medical school. We are not serving our students well if we offer them, and require them to take, only departmental courses.

A distribution system, which is the lazy default system in American undergraduate education, does not address the problem, because in a distribution system students are still taking departmental courses—that is, courses designed primarily for concentrators. If you are skeptical about the ineffectiveness of distribution systems, I urge you to read the pages on distribution systems in Derek Bok’s book “Our Underachieving Colleges.”

Departments don’t normally generate courses for the nonspecialist, or that prepare students for life after college. That’s not their mission. But it is the mission of the college as a whole, which is to say of the faculty. A general education curriculum represents what the faculty believes are the things that every educated person should know, and the skills and habits of mind that every educated person should acquire.

When we worked on the current Gen Ed program, we went around to departments and asked colleagues what they thought the General Education requirements should be. What courses should every Harvard student have to take? we asked. The answer was usually, We don’t really care, as long as one of them is in our field.

What we learned from this was not that faculty are paranoid. We knew that already. What we learned is that all of us do our research and teach our classes because we think our subject matters to people who are not themselves specialists. We often use the phrase “knowledge for its own sake” to define what we mean by liberal education. Insofar as this means that we pursue our inquiries without fear or favor, and that we operate in an institution that honors the principle of academic freedom, “knowledge for its own sake” is fine as a slogan. Ultimately, though, we don’t pursue knowledge for its own sake. Knowledge just is instrumental. It puts us into a different relationship with the world. We all believe that our students should learn about the subjects we have devoted our lives to working on not because it will get them into PhD programs, but because it will help them lead fuller, more informed and enlightened, more reflective lives. When we devised the General Education program, we were trying to channel that faith.

The word general in general education is related to the word generalist. General education courses are not courses for concentrators and specialists. Historically, therefore, there has always been a tension, sometimes even a war, between concentrations and General Education programs. They really are different curricular beasts. Without getting into the bloody details, I can tell you that the year the faculty spent adopting the General Education program was a battle in that war, and that General Education lost. That’s one of the reasons there are too many requirements. If we want to have a cogent and effective General Education curriculum, we have to resist attempts to somehow make Gen Ed serve the interests of the concentrations.

This task is hard everywhere, but it is especially hard at Harvard because of our institutional DNA. Harvard is all about specialization. We are here because we are the best, or because we strive to be the best, or maybe because we have got people to believe we’re the best, at what we do. My speciality is dilettantism. I’m really good at it. So it can be difficult for us to see that although our undergraduates will one day become specialists, too, right now they need education of a much more general kind, aimed at educational goals that are tied to life outside the academy.

Since the nineteenth century, Harvard has been the industry leader in American higher education. Other colleges and universities look to us to understand what liberal education should look like and where it is headed. After the new Gen Ed program was launched, I was invited to visit many colleges that were trying to design new general education programs, and whose administrators and faculties wanted to know what Harvard was doing. These ranged from small schools like Babson College, which is a business college nearby, to large publics like Utah State, to Stanford, which is a West Coast start-up.

This is an important moment for universities committed to the principles of liberal education. There is a lot of external pressure on our way of educating people right now, a lot of skepticism about the practical value of what we do. I think that most of that skepticism is uninformed. But it’s out there. General Education is a place where we can make explicit why we believe a liberal education matters.

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Photograph by Peter Vanderwarker

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Sofia Cigarroa Kennedy and KeeHup Arie Yong

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Alumni Association

2018 Aloian Memorial Scholars

The Winthrop House library

Photograph by Peter Vanderwarker

Winthrop House renovated and expanded