The often-repeated assertion that the Faculty is tired of debating General Education reflects little credit on the Faculty. Although the debates have dragged on for almost a year, few professors have expended more time on the subject than the 14 hours the Faculty has spent in talking about it. That is not a great deal of time to spend on a program every student must go through. The Faculty should scrutinize the CEP's proposed new Gen Ed plan with some care, even if it takes a little time.
The plan as a whole we think a sound one. It may not stand a philosophical test, but it is not a philosophical document. It was derived not from first principles, but from Faculty votes, and its only philosophical base is the small part of the Redbook program left unchanged by voted statute or administrative convenience.
The CEP plan would correct several deficiencies in the present Gen Ed system. An undergraduate's General Education is now confined largley to his freshman and sophomore years. There is some value in this, but many students would prefer putting off the encounter with Gen Ed until time and departmental education give them a superior background for dealing with it.
The new plan would ask lower-level Gen Ed courses to compete with departmental courses for students, and this too will be welcome. Too many undergraduates are thrown into bad courses because no alternatives are available; competition should weed these out.
The program's chief opposition has come from two diametrically opposed groups. One takes the position that a student should be permitted to fulfill his Gen Ed requirement by taking certain departmental courses. We disagree completely with this position. The Faculty has committed itself to the concept that Gen Ed should involve more than an introduction to specialties. We believe students should be asked to fulfill the requirements by taking the kind of broad, interdepartmental courses the Gen Ed program assumes.
We see no reason, however, to force everyone to take lower-level courses, and it is here that we differ from a second group of opponents of the CEP program, including Master Finley. If a person has a strong background in an area and wishes to study it at a more advanced level, or if he wishes to postpone his General Education until he has become familiar with much of the work covered by lower-level courses, he should be permitted to work at the upper-level.
Master Finley feels that the CEP plan represents a departmental takeover of the Gen Ed program. We do not think so, although one aspect of the CEP plan would give the Gen Ed system a firm push towards the departments. This is the requirement that a student who wishes to fulfill the requirement at the upper level do so by taking a sequence of courses--first a departmental course and then a closely-rleated upper-level Gen Ed course.
The idea of sequences is a fine one, but every student who wants to take an upper-level course should not be forced into a sequence. There are several upper-level courses at present which fulfill all the requirements of a Gen Ed course. They are interdepartmental; they treat a large area of subject matter; they are extremely well-taught. Many are not lower-level courses only because the professors teaching them chose to deal with older students in smaller courses. Now that the Faculty has decided that Gen Ed can be postponed until the upper-class years, we see no reason not to allow students to fulfill their requirements by taking these courses.
The sequence requirement will also cause administrative problems. Consider, for instance, a student who takes Economics 1 as a sophomore and then decides that he does not enjoy Economics, and does not want to spend any more course-time on it. The CEP plan, as elucidated by Mr. Wilcox, gives him only the choice of leaping backwards into a lower-level course designed for people younger than he, or of taking the unpalatable Economics-oriented courses at the upper-level, or of beginning another two-year sequence.
Not to require sequences admittedly involves a contradiction: one requires a student to take a departmental course which may have no relevance to the upper-level course he then goes on to. The merits of requiring the departmental course, however, are considerable. It makes certain that students will have some contact with fields outside their own while they are still freshmen and sophomores. It permits an instructor to offer an upper-level course that is in a sequence with the knowledge that enough nonconcentrators will be interested to make it worthwhile.
We still believe that the broad view of knowledge which Gen Ed offers can be among the most valuable parts of a Harvard education. It should not be discarded in favor of an intensive study of a field, even if it is outside one's own department. Upper-level courses that are parts of sequences should be evaluated carefully, and the Gen Ed Committee should be sure before approving them that they offer the kind of treatment which the name General Education implies.
With this reservation, we think the CEP program is a good one. But because it does leave so many gaps, the Faculty should not be afraid to debate it at length and perhaps to offer specific instructions to the General Education Committee on some points. Finally, it will do no good to rush into this program immediately. If it must be worked out in a very few months, by a new Gen Ed Committee, the chances are that it will turn out to be an administrative hash. Not enough time will be offered to Faculty members to create new courses, and not enough to the committee to prune less-worthy courses from the upper-level offerings. Its installation should be postponed for a year.