After 4 Years of Debate, Faculty Approves Gen Ed

Despite lingering doubts, FAS endorse ‘real-world’ curriculum in 168-14 vote

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Evan H. Jacobs

University President-elect Drew G. Faust walks with Secretary to the University Marc L. Goodheart '81 toward Mass. Hall after professors voted to approve a new general education curriculum for the College.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences yesterday approved legislation to replace the Core with a new general education curriculum emphasizing the real-world applications of a liberal arts education.

In a 168-to-14 vote at yesterday’s meeting of the Faculty, professors concluded a four-year-long debate over the centerpiece of the curricular review, the College’s first in three decades. After six meetings in as many weeks, professors expressed happiness and relief that the legislation’s passage—a stated goal of FAS administrators for this year—had been achieved.

Under the new general education requirements, students will be required to take courses in eight categories, including “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding,” “Culture and Belief,” “Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning,” “Ethical Reasoning,” “Science of Living Systems”, “Science of the Physical Universe,” “Societies of the World,” and “the United States and the World.”

Several professors who voted in favor of the legislation expressed lingering concerns about details of the program.

But former Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, who initiated the curricular review in 2002, encouraged professors to end the discussion. “Everything that can be said has been said, although not everyone has said it.” Kirby, an East Asia scholar, cited a 1924 vote of the Chinese Communist Party: “The motion was passed unanimously although many comrades were opposed.”

The curriculum approved yesterday has its foundations in a report released in October by a task force headed by English professor Louis Menand and philosophy professor Alison Simmons. That report made headlines by proposing that every undergraduate be required to take a course in the study of religion and a course on the United States. The group’s final report, released in February, eliminated the requirement of a religion course but retained the requirement of a course on the United States.

“I think it’s great that the Faculty took possession of this program,” Menand said after the meeting. “I think there’s real enthusiasm for it.”

In a marathon of six meetings over the past six weeks, the Faculty debated the place of history and of departmental courses in the new curriculum. Last month, professors voted that students be required to take one course engaged “substantially with the study of the past”—a move described by one historian as “mostly symbolic” but important for fellow colleagues who have criticized the present-day focus of the proposed curriculum.

The question of how departmental courses will fit in was left to the yet-to-be-named roster of the Standing Committee on General Education—which will fill in the blanks of the new general education structure that the Faculty called for yesterday.

President-elect Drew. G. Faust, who had not spoken out at the Faculty meetings during the past five weeks of deliberation, assured professors that she would take an active role in the remainder of the process.

“It will be a central matter for the agenda of the University and for my own agenda in the months and years to come,” she said. “I will regard it as both my privilege and responsibility to work together with a new dean to support implementation of a new curriculum.”

Interim President Derek C. Bok, who oversaw the last curricular overhaul in the 1970s, praised the results of this review.

“I really do believe that in the last two years this Faculty has made a more comprehensive effort to improve the quality in undergraduate education than anything that has happened in the history of this University,” he said.

General education was seen as the centerpiece of the curricular review that began in 2002, but faculty disagreement over the guiding philosophy of the proposed common curriculum delayed the replacement of the much-criticized Core.

Several professors continued to express concern yesterday with some of the program’s more specific qualities.

Calling the new program “too much of a good thing,” former dean of the College Harry R. Lewis suggested that his colleagues pare down the required number of courses from eight to six.

He said that the program’s deficiencies were a result of “the chaos of the past few years.”

“Because of leadership crises,” Lewis said, “we have simply missed the opportunity to do the right thing for undergraduate education as whole...we are going to relieve the pressure on ourselves to make hard choices by transferring that pressure to our students.”

Drawing an analogy between the general education legislation and the U.S. Constitution, English Department Chair James T. Engell ’73 used Benjamin Franklin’s words to describe the new legislation as “an imperfect document.”

“What mattered most, [Franklin] said, is how that document was administered,” Engell said. “I hope amid the justified misgivings, we can also see there are very justified strengths.”

—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at jcornbl@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.

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