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General Education Gains

1.2.07

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has further refined its proposal for overhauling undergraduates’ general education, and appears headed toward completing a sweeping revision of the undergraduate curriculum this year. At an FAS meeting on December 12, the Task Force on General Education refined the proposal it had unveiled in October (see “Education for Life,” January-February, page 61), providing a clearer view of its intended successor to the Core curriculum.

In a letter dated December 7, the task force reiterated its belief that the Core, “based on disciplinary approaches to subject matter,” should be replaced with a general-education framework “based on subject matter, which can be approached from a number of disciplinary perspective.”

Those subject areas were defined in October to include a one-semester course each in cultural traditions and cultural change; the ethical life; American history or institutions in global context; other societies; reason and faith; life science; and physical science—plus courses in skills deemed critical (written and oral communication; foreign language; and analytical reasoning).

In the December revision, the task force eliminated the distinction between subject areas and critical skills; removed “reason and faith” as a subject category—it had received wide attention in the external media—because the study of religion could readily be accommodated in other categories; uncoupled formerly linked fields (the United States and the world, and science and technology, each of which had previously encompassed two courses); and introduced a broad new field of study on “human nature and the human condition.” Thus, the proposed general-education requirements would be:

  • life science;
  • physical science;
  • political, social, cultural or economic practices and institutions of the United States, with historical perspective and some sense of the connections between the United States and the rest of the world;
  • a comparable course on societies other than the United States;
  • literature, the arts, and ideas;
  • what it means to be a human being (which could include perspectives ranging from evolutionary biology to studies in the humanities or religious thought);
  • analytical decisionmaking, using empirical data;
  • moral reasoning;
  • written and oral communication; and
  • two courses in a foreign language (which students may be able to waive by demonstrating proficiency on a standardized text or placement examination—a practice the task force suggests the faculty may want to reconsider).

Restating its claims for a distinctive general-education part of students’ College work, the task force distinguished this component from concentration courses—the part of their work where students learn “how to pursue inquiry within a scholarly or research field,” a definition that also come close to the “approaches to knowledge” organizing principle of the Core courses. Instead, the task force aims at the following goals for general education (from the December 7 letter): “to prepare students for engagement with civic life, to build an awareness of themselves as products of and participants in a culture, and to know how to ‘read’ and appreciate that culture; to help them understand the scientific, political, social, economic, and cultural forces that make for change and the resistance to change in their own lives and across the globe; and to instate a sensitivity to the ethical dimensions of what they say and do.”

Faculty concerns about the proposal have centered on whether the formulation is too practical and careerist, and on the coverage of specific disciplines. The task force’s redefined course categories were intended to reflect extensive discussion about some of those issues. But those details probably matter less to FAS members as a whole than the task force’s particularly ringing endorsement of the meaning and value of a liberal education as a whole—both its general component and a student’s field of concentration. It merits quoting at length, again from the December 7 letter:

The essential purpose of a liberal education, as we understand it, is not to instill competency and confidence, or to flatter the presumption that the world students are familiar with is the only one that matters. It is, on the contrary, to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, and to disorient young people and help them to find ways to re-orient themselves. Liberal educators aim to accomplish this by challenging assumptions, by inducing self-reflection, by teaching students how to think critically and analytically, by exposing them to the sense of alienation produced by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural formations and with phenomena that exceed their, and even our own, capacity fully to understand. These are things that professional schools do not do, employers do not do, even academic graduate programs do not do. Those institutions deliberalize students, train them to think as professionals. The historical, theoretical, and relational perspectives that liberal education provides can be a source of enlightenment and empowerment that will serve our graduates well for the rest of their lives. We expect that every course offered in general education will be taught in this spirit.

In their December 12 discussion, faculty members seemed largely content with the task force’s overall formulation of fresh aims for general education. Their comments focused on several aspects of the proposed subjects of study.

Professor of history of art and architecture Jeffrey F. Hamburger felt that the curriculum inappropriately minimized the importance of humanities, which would be given “short shrift.” Given students’ uncertainty about their life interests or the best means to pursue them, he said, the faculty had the paradoxical obligation to “compel” undergraduates to make the most of their intellectual freedom at college so they could come to explore the life of the mind without regard to its later practical applications. A general education in which humanities concentrators had to take two science courses and two in social science, but concentrators in those fields had to take just one humanities course, would fail such students. He recommended redefinition of the moral reason category, and of the new courses on “what it means to be a human being,” to give clearer focus to humanities subjects.

Many other speakers puzzled over the exact meaning of the latter category of courses, which seemed to them impossibly broad and vague.

But Smith professor of molecular genetics Andrew Murray said the very breadth of that category “usefully muddles” science and humanities—a “good thing,” he said. He decried the endless, sterile division of science and humanities, which he characterized as the most troubling trait of academia.

Professor of philosophy Sean D. Kelly thought the subject of general education, writ large, was the shaping of character—not through exposure to any agreed-upon, unified body of knowledge, but through disciplined confrontation with different notions of what a good life could and should be. To that end, he thought the task force’s overall formulation was a good one.

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Theda Skocpol, a sociologist, reminded the faculty that in debating an ultimate general-education proposal, professors would do well to put it into the context of students’ concentration courses, elective options, and other elements of the overall curriculum reform adopted during the past few years. She felt that precise definition of how proposed course categories would fulfill worthy substantive goals—civic education, helping students understand themselves as participants in their culture, conveying what it means to live with change around the globe, encouraging development of ethical sensibilities—would be of decisive importance.

With that, task force cochair Louis Menand, Bass professor of English and American literature and language, thanked the faculty for engaging in deep discussion of what undergraduates should learn, and how. The task force will prepare a revised, final report for delivery to FAS in January, he said, “at which point we will lay our hammer down.” The faculty will then organize committees to explore in detail how the curriculum is to be organized and implemented, and will advance legislative proposals for FAS’s consideration. If adopted, course development and introduction into classrooms—itself an extended process—could then begin.