The Preliminary Report of the Task Force on General Education, to be distributed to professors today, rejects the Core’s emphasis on approaches to academic inquiry while largely accepting the current system’s structure of a set number of required fields of study.
In doing so, the new report presents a coherent philosophy—tying liberal education to life outside the university and the challenges of a modern, globalized society—that eschews the previously-proposed distributional requirements that received lackluster support from professors.
“The role of general education, as we conceive it, is to connect what students learn at Harvard to life beyond Harvard, and to help them understand and appreciate the complexities of the world and their role in it,” says the report, which was drafted by six professors and two undergraduates over the past three months.
The report’s recommendations need to be approved by the full Faculty of Arts and Sciences before they can be implemented. Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 wrote in an e-mail yesterday that the report would be the main topic of discussion at the Nov. 14 Faculty meeting, but it is not clear when a final vote could occur.
While the report lays out a comprehensive structure for Harvard’s next general education system, it does not explain how it will be put into effect. English professor Louis Menand and philosophy professor Alison Simmons, who both chaired the report committee, said in a joint interview yesterday that they expected some of the report’s specifics to change before it becomes final.
The report, which was made available in advance to The Crimson, comes as FAS looks to move past the leadership crises of this year and last. Its authors hope the proposals will generate more enthusiasm than the ill-received general education reports of the past two years.
Under the new recommendations, students would be required to complete one half-course in each of seven areas—“Cultural Traditions and Cultural Change,” “The Ethical Life,” “The United States,” “Societies of the World,” “Reason and Faith,” “Life Sciences,” and “Physical Sciences.”
Undergraduates would still need to take Expository Writing and show proficiency in a foreign language. They would also have to study a third “critical skill,” analytical reasoning, which would encompass some of the Core’s current quantitative reasoning area but would also include courses on non-mathematical analysis.
These fields conform to the four goals of general education set out by the report: teaching global citizenship, the ability to adapt to change, and an understanding of the ethical dimensions of life, as well as making students aware that they are both products and participants of cultural traditions.
‘A BROAD RANGE OF MATERIAL’
As in the Core, the new system would allow students to fulfill their general education requirements through either non-departmental courses created expressly as general education classes or through approved departmental courses.
But in a marked difference from the current program, general education courses under the proposed system would have to present students with “a broad range of material, rather than focus in depth on a single topic or a small number of texts.”
With the possible exception of foreign language, students would not be exempt from any of the new curriculum’s required fields, though they would be able to double-count some courses for concentration credit.
The report says that many current Core courses, like Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice,” and Historical Study A-35, “Democracy in America and Europe” could continue to count for general education credit under the new system.
But courses with less explicit connections to 21st-century issues, such as Historical Study B-34, “The World in 1776,” and Science B-57, “Dinosaurs,” likely would not count unless significant changes were made to their syllabi.
And it is unclear whether Social Analysis 10, “Principles of Economics”—a rite of passage for hundreds of freshmen—will continue to count for general education credit.
The report also suggests that a broader array of course types be considered for general education credit than are currently allowed to count for Core credit. For example, the report says that students should be allowed to fulfill one of their general education requirements through a Freshmen Seminar, despite the fact that the seminars are graded pass-fail.
All of the requirements are geared towards addressing the issues of contemporary society.
Under the “Cultural Traditions” requirement, students would study how art throughout history impacts society today. “The Ethical Life,” similar to a moral reasoning requirement, has students study both ethical theory and concrete ethical problems.
The “United States” requirement examines the origins and development of U.S. institutions and practices, while “Societies of the World” looks at how societies outside the United States, both past and present, impact the current global order.
“Reason and Faith” explores the interaction between religious and secular institutions.
“Life Sciences” and “Physical Sciences”—both under the general heading of “Science and Technology”—are designed to teach key scientific concepts and place them in the context of contemporary social issues.
THE REAL WORLD
As part of its goal to link education with life beyond the classroom, the report urges the creation of an “activity-based learning” initiative to forge stronger links between students’ academic life and their extracurricular pursuits.
The report does not suggest a mechanism for how that initiative would be accomplished. But the committee hoped the Faculty would be able to find a way to help students see academics reflected in their activities.
“Symbolically at least it’s the spirit of our vision,” Menand said. “If we can make this work in some way—we’re not sure what the best way to do that would be—we’d really sort of lock in the message we’re trying to send with our curriculum.”
The report also bluntly acknowledges that few Harvard students intend to pursue academic careers and that the Core’s current focus on teaching “modes of inquiry” might be misguided.
“Less than 4 percent of our entering freshmen name college teaching as a career goal, and only five percent of seniors say they intend to pursue doctoral study in the arts and sciences in the fall after graduation,” the report says.
The Core’s “emphasis on the disciplines may be misplaced,” it says. “Our students should see how the ideas, facts, and perspectives they are learning in the College come to life in real-world scenarios.”
In addition to chairs Menand and Simmons, the task force that drafted today’s report included psychologist Stephen M. Kosslyn, chemist David R. Liu ’94, paleontologist David R. Pilbeam, sociologist Mary C. Waters, undergrads Ryan A. Petersen ’08 and Limor S. Spector ’07, and Assistant Dean of the College Stephanie H. Kenen, who was an ex officio member.
The committee chairs acknowledged that their vision is a long way from being implemented. Even after the full Faculty approves a final report—as early as this winter—some transition period would have to occur first.
“I have no idea how they’d make a transition,” Menand said. But he said he was optimistic that the report would be well received—especially after a slew of negative press coverage following Lawrence H. Summers’ resignation as University president last March.
“I think the Faculty wants to make progress in this area very badly,” Menand said.
—Staff writer Evan H. Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at email@example.com.
See The Crimson's other coverage of the new general education report:
After Missteps, Harvard Cuts A Path Apart From Its Peers
Timeline: The Difficult Road to Today's Report