General Education: The Forgotten Goals

Program Altered Much Since Debut in 1945

At the end of World War II, a select Faculty committee recommended a program of "general education" designed to solve most of the problems which faced Harvard College--aside from the lack of dormitory space. The re-report was received enthusiastically, and the program it recommended put into effect with only minor changes.

It is now possible, however, to satisfy all of the requirements which that program imposed with courses which cannot possibly achieve any of the objectives which the committee originally set forth. Either the program is in desperate need of reform or the original objectives were not worth pursuing.

Before 1945, a student in Harvard College was subjected to the "essentially negative" distribution requirement that he take "two or three courses of something--almost anything" outside of his field of concentration. In that year, however, the Committee on the Objectives of a General Education in a Free Society delivered its report to President Conant. That report--the venerable and moribund Redbook--recommended the substitution of a quite positive prescription: All students would take the same lower-level Humanities course, the same Social Sciences course, and one of two courses in the Natural Sciences. In addition, they would take three more courses outside of their department of concentration, two of them outside of the area (Hum, Nat Sci, or Soc Sci) in which that department fell.

Choice Limited

"This choice will, however," the Redbook insisted, "be confined to the courses approved by the proposed Committee on General Education as fulfilling the aims of general education. Courses narrowly specialistic would be excluded from those satisfying these requirements."

The Redbook (officially titled General Education in a Free Society) described rather precisely the form the lower-level courses should take. The Humanities course was to cover intensively somewhat less than eight books selected from a list which "might include Homer, one or two of the Greek tragedies, Plato, the Bible, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy."

In the Social Sciences, it suggested a course it called "Western Thought and Institutions," which would cover social thought from the Greeks, though "Aquinas, Machiavelli, Luther, Bodin, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Bentham, and Mill," to the present day. The course would also include enough history to enable students to understand what they read in its proper historical context.

Undergraduates were to have their choice of two courses in the Natural Sciences, one centered around physics and the other, apparently for the benefit of those who had difficulty dealing with quantitative methods, around biology. Both courses were to include reading in original sources and to attempt to place the problems and principles with which they dealt in their appropriate historical setting.

Specific Recommendations

These specific recommendations for Harvard College were the result of a discussion which ranged over the whole field of education in the United States. The Committee had divided all education into two parts, general and special. General education, it said, was education which prepared a man for "life as a responsible human being and citizen," while special education was designed as preparation for a particular occupation. When the Committee then turned its gaze to Harvard College, special education was identified with the instruction a student received in his field of concentration, and courses outside of that field were regarded as part of his general education.

At this point the Committee made clear a distinction which has been muddied by writers on the subject ever since. All six of the courses which a student would take to satisfy the Gen Ed requirement were to be ("good Gen Ed" (non-specialized, well-taught, interesting).

Ideas and Concepts

Three of them, however, were to be something more. The Committee thought there were certain ideas and concepts that every graduate of the College ought to carry away with him. It was for this reason that it described so explicitly the lower-level Gen Ed courses.

What the Committee hoped the student would get out of the elementary Soc Sci and Hum courses is fairly obvious. The Committee described it in rather cosmic terms as "the general art of the free man and the citizen" and "an appreciation of his cultural heritage." But what it actually meant was that it thought that there were certain books a student ought to be required to read before he graduated and certain ideas to which he ought to be exposed.

It was in the Natural Sciences that the Committee was least clear about what it expected students to carry away from their lower-level Gen Ed course. The famous quotation--"The claim of general education is that the history of science is part of science"--has all too often been taken out of context, a context which provided that "this is not intended to be merely a course about science. It will contain much solid scientific content."

On the other hand, the Committee also strongly implied that the actual science learned--the facts about atomic structure or vertebrates--was a by-product, albeit a welcome one. What the committee primarily desired was that the student gain "an insight into the principles of science, an appreciation of the values of the scientific enterprise."

The Committee obviously did not mean to pretend that a man who knew no physics could call himself educated only if he knew some biology. Rather, it hoped that either of the science courses it described would give the desired "insight." In both courses, it said, the actual science covered was to be "chosen to subserve the major aims of the course."

From the first, however, there were differences between the General Education program that actually found its way into the course catalogue and that recommended in the Redbook. In 1946, when lower-level Gen Ed courses were first offered on an experimental basis, there were two Soc Sci courses and three Hums, in addition to the two recommended Nat Scis.

Hardly Surprising

Such developments are hardly sur-surprising. The unwieldy size of a course required of all students, differences among students in ability and preparation, disagreements among faculty members over methods of presentation and the exact selection of the "great books" and significant scientific problems to be covered could all be expected to encourage the proliferation of lower-level Gen Ed courses beyond the four originally contemplated.

The Redbook itself even recommended something similar in the case of the physical science courses. Here, it had suggested, there should be two sections, one fast and one slow, to allow for differences in ability and prior preparation.

These departures from the exact specifications of the Redbook in both the Humanities and the Social Sciences did not necessarily represent deviations from its basic philosophy. The alternate lower-level Soc Sci and Hum courses were originally intended to cover the same material. Thus, only one of each could be counted for credit.

Of the courses added over the years, however, several (most obviously Hum 6, Soc Sci 4, and Soc Sci 8) make no pretense of covering the material originally recommended. They may well be excellent courses, better taught and more interesting than those lower-level courses which come closer to the Committee's ideal.

But placing them on the list of courses satisfying the lower-level Gen Ed requirement is a certification either that Hum 6 and Soc Sci 8 are sufficient to impart an understanding of a student's cultural heritage and the development of Western political institutions or else that such an understanding is not really very important, in which case it becomes rather difficult to defend the lower-level Gen Ed requirement at all.

But if standards for the lower-level courses in the non-scientific areas have undergone a process of gradual disappearance since 1945, those in natural sciences have suffered through the even more debilitating process of official reinterpretation.

Teaching Nat Sci General Education courses is not an easy job, and it early became an unpopular one among science professors. Of course, the Redbook did leave the Nat Sci instructor a somewhat complicated job.

In a Hum or Soc Sci, the lecturer talked about a book, a writer, or an idea, and, when he was finished, his students were expected to know about the book, the writer, or the idea. But, according to the Redbook, a physics professor lectured on elementary particles, and, when he was finished, his class was supposed to understand "the scientific enterprise." Understandably then, critics of the Nat Sci program have been divided into those who wanted courses which taught about science as a discipline and those who wanted the undergraduate to learn more about the elementary particles and less about the enterprise.

Bruner Committee

In 1959, the Committee on Science in General Education, headed by Jerome Bruner, called for courses that would "communicate knowledge of the fundamental principles of a special science," and that would also "give the student an idea of the methods of science as they are known today." How much this differs from the concept of the Redbook committee is made clear by the following sentences from the Bruner report:

The conception of the General Education course in Natural Science as commonly derived from the Report of the Committee on the Objectives of General Education in a Free Society has, we believe, led to misunderstanding and a certain alienation in the scientific community at Harvard. Insofar as it is clear that the principal object of a General Education course in science is the teaching of science itself rather than its historical, social, or philosophical implications, we believe that the present misunderstanding and alienation can be diminished.

In other words, if scientists do not want to teach Gen Ed courses, Gen Ed want to teach Gen Ed courses, Gen Ed them acceptable to scientists. "In the great search for manpower," Gerald Holton, the physics professor who teaches Nat Sci 120, said "everything becomes equal to everything else."

The Bruner committee, recommended that lower-level Nat Sci courses be added in such fields as chemistry, geology, astronomy, and experimental psychology. It also devoted some time to explaning the difference between a Gen Ed course and an introductory departmental course, a distinction which has become more or less academic, at least in those fields where the two are combined.


To justify these recommendations, the Bruner Committee contended students should learn some science--some facts about the physical world--not as a means of learning "method" but also for the sake of learning some facts about the physical world. Which particular facts a student learned concerned the Committee little if at all. The Bruner Committee did concede the importance of familiarizing students with the Redbook's "scientific enterprise," but insisted that the way to do this was simply to teach science. Knowledge about the "enterprise," however, is precisely what the Redbcook.

Knowledge about the "enterprise" however, is precisely what the Redbook had called "the major iam of the course,"--and it had insisted that the actual science taught was to be" chosen to subserve those aims.

Now, according to the Bruner Committee, this knowledge was to be picked up automatically by spending three hours a week for a year in a lecture hall presided over by someone holding an appointment in one of the science departments.

But even if an appreciation of the enterprise of science can be acquired by such a process of academic osmosis, some people argue that not all sciences are necessarily equally good vehicles for it. And since the 1959 publication of the Bruner report there have been many reactions against its assertion that the ideal Nat Sci course bore a surprising resemblance to whatever courses science departments happened to feel like offering.

Most eloquent of these is that of Mary I. Bunting. She has suggested that the ideal science for general education purposes is microbiology, since, in this field, it is possible to pick up enough background in one course, supposedly, to understand the problems which researchers are currently studying.

The Redbook Committee had wanted to give students some idea of the processes by which scientific discoveries were made by showing how these things had been done in the past. This ideal was rejected by the Bruner Committee, which was far more interested in the content of the solutions and discoveries. But by directing the attention of students to unsolved problems, Mrs. Bunting hopes to accomplish the goal of the Redbook Committee, at least in part, with a course which could not be attacked as historical rather than scientific.

Redbook Accepted

All of these arguments over the administration of the General Education Program accept the general viewpoint of the Redbook--that a student should take General Education courses because they teach him something he ought to know. There is, however, a justification for the Program which does not depend at all on the material taught being essential to some sort of generally educated man. Most of those who take this view are dismayed by the greater and greater specialization among undergraduates, however helpful such early specialization may be to those who wish to get an early start on their doctorates, intense specialization also puts heavy pressure on undergraduates to commit themselves prematurely to a narrow area of study, and it can be argued that an undergraduate education deep and narrow is not the best preparation for the student who plans to make his career someplace outside the academy. It has even been argured that the future academician should have an undergraduate education which is something other than a preview of what he will get in graduate school, as much as should the future doctor, lawyer, or businessman.

These critics see the general education program as the last bulwark sep- erating the College from being the first four years of the GSAS. They share the vision of the Redbook committee that the upper-level general education courses would offer support, encouragement, and staffing to interesting courses, experimental courses, which were not specialized enough to interest any single department. Where these critics differ from the Redbook committee is in their vision of the required lower-level courses as an opportunity to offer all this, plus a captive audience.

The committee which wrote the Redbook was unashamedly envious of the power the departments had to prescribe the programs of those who fell into their clutches. "The several departments," it said, "ordinarily have definite ideas of what is to be included within the immediate scope of their interest. They make rigorous demands upon the student's activities and time; and in the absence of virtually all definition of content in general educaeson, concentration inevitably dominates the curriculum."

The solution it adopted was to give general education the same coercive machinery a department enjoyed. "The claims of general education should be presented as clearly as the various departments press the claims of each of the fields of special learning," it maintained, "and to this end we shall recommend not only the adoption of certain requirements which the student must satisfy, but also that an agency be established within the faculty which will guard the interests of general education as the individual departments at present guard those of special education."

Competing Programs

It is this view of the Faculty Committee on General Education which has impelled some, although by no means all, of the attacks on such programs as advanced standing and the freshman seminars, which exempt some students from part of the Gen Ed Program. For these critics what is relevant is not how good a substitute the freshman seminar or the high-school preparation shown by the A.P. sophomore is for the lower-level Gen Ed course or even how close it comes to being a substitute for the ideal Gen Ed course of the Redbook. Rather, these programs are dangerous to Gen Ed because they bring the student more quickly under the influence of a department.

This, of course, does not mean that the Faculty stands always ready to sacrifice the General Education Program at the least excuse. Since there is little agreement as to what Gen Ed courses do that makes them Gen Ed courses, it is difficult to explain how freshman seminars or high school courses cannot do the same.

However exaggerated such a view may be, it cannot be denied that the General Education Program does not do exactly what the Redbook anticipated it would, and that, in fact, there is little agreement as to exactly what it should be doing.

Against this background of confusion, Dean Ford named a ten-member committee in October, 1962, to review the program. The Committee, headed by Paul M. Doty, professor of Chemistry, would ask, Ford said, "basic questions about the proper role of the American college at a time when the greater part of our students are going on to graduate and professional schools."

Current Choice

Doty's committee is faced with the choice of calling for a revision of the Gen Ed Program to bring it back into conformity with the Redbook, or devising a new rationale for the program.

The easiest solution (and by this time the Committee must find it very tempting) is to Brunerize the Humanities and Social Sciences, turning the General Education Program into a simple distribution requirement.

Such a process will be particularly difficult in the Social Science, since the newer "methodology" courses, such as Soc Sci 8, have much less in common with the traditional Soc Sci than do the various lower-level Nat Sci with each other.

Hopefully, however, it will describe what undergraduates are supposed to learn from the General Education Program in terms definite enough to make it possible to seperate those courses which should be accepted in fulfillment of the lower-level requirement from those which should not. Such a statement, once made, should also make it much easier to define the relationship of the Gen Ed Program to freshman seminars and the Advanced Standing Program.

Redbook Hopes

The Redbook hoped that an understanding of traditions and culture would serve as a unifying force in a society fragmented by differences of occupation and class. General Education was the education necessary to avoid this fragmentation, which the Redbook considered inimical to a democratic society.

Our conclusion, then," it said, "is that the aim of education should be to prepare an individual to become an expect both in some particular vocation or art and in the general art of the free man and the citizen. Thus the two kinds of education (general and special) once given to different social classes must be given together to all alike.

As World War II has faded further and further into history, this rhetoric has found less and less acceptance, particularly in the academic community. Former President Conant, who presided over the institution of the program, is now an outspoken advocate of academic specialization, and Gen Ed is defended today more often as an effort to unify the College than as Harvard's contribution to the re-unification of society.6PAUL M. DOTY