Gen Ed Frustrates Some Disciplines

A year after the Faculty voted in favor of General Education, the new curriculum—with 26 courses approved so far—is still a work in progress. But as differences between the old and the new are becoming clear, not everyone is celebrating the change.

The architects and practitioners of Gen Ed agree: the new curriculum needs to focus on subject matter before method, areas of knowledge before ways of knowing.

But in this transition, two of Harvard’s largest disciplines—history and economics—are finding it difficult to secure a niche in the new curriculum.

Although Social Analysis 10: “Principles of Economics” was submitted for Gen Ed approval last February, the Gen Ed Standing Committee and the Economics department have yet to reach an agreement on where it belongs in the new system.

Ec10 Professor N. Gregory Mankiw wrote in an e-mailed statement that he was not impressed with the Gen Ed requirements when they were first passed, and his opinion has not improved.

“The committee that drafted the new Gen Ed rules tried to produce something more innovative than the kind of distribution requirements that other schools have,” he wrote. “In the end, the process generated a product that was innovative but inferior. Unfortunately, it looks like we have little choice now but to live with it.”


According to economics department Chair James H. Stock, when the department submitted Ec10 for credit in the category U.S. in the World, the Gen Ed committee sent it back, suggesting that it belongs in Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning instead.

The department has not met this recommendation with enthusiasm.

“The theories developed in Ec10 are extraordinarily basic,” Mankiw wrote. “No math is used beyond what a typical Harvard student would have learned in the 8th or 9th grade.”

Both Mankiw and department leaders said they worry that students who take Ec10 may decide not to pursue other math courses.

“We do not want to provide any inducement or easy opportunity for students to take economics rather than statistics, as we believe that statistics is valuable and different from economics,” said Jeffrey A. Miron, the economics department’s director of undergraduate studies.

Now, the department has submitted a second proposal: the microeconomic half of the course, Ec10a, in Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning, and the macroeconomic half, Ec10b, in U.S. in the World.

“We see training in economics as a key component of preparing Harvard students for being effective citizens and leaders of the U.S. and the world,” Stock said.

But even if the proposal is accepted, the department may choose not to include Ec10a in Gen Ed at all.

If Ec10b is placed in U.S. in the World, the department might keep Ec10a out of Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning to prevent crowding out statistics, Miron said.

There is also a possibility that Ec10 will count for both categories.

“The final decision as to where if either or both of those categories it’s going to be hasn’t been made yet,” said Gen Ed committee member Alexander “Zander” N. Li ’08, a Philosophy concentrator in Leverett House.

Gen Ed committee chair Jay M. Harris and several committee members declined to comment. The committee is set to discuss the proposal at a meeting today.

Stock said that he believes the situation reflects larger problems in the way the curriculum has been structured.

“One important challenge facing the Gen Ed committee is to find a home in the Gen Ed curriculum for the quantitative social sciences,” he said, “and this discussion about what to do with Ec10 is an example of this general problem.”


With enrollment numbers sky high, it seems Harvard’s economists need not worry whether Gen Ed classes will provide a gateway to their department. But for the school’s historians, finding a place for their classes is another matter.

The new curriculum has replaced Historical Study A and B with categories that focus more on contemporary issues: U.S. in the World and Societies of the World.

“One of the things that I feel is missing is the sense of history as part of the humanities,” said John M. Duffy, chair of the Classics department. “I don’t see that covered as well as it would have been under the Core.”

The History concentration has seen student enrollment shrink significantly in the last two decades.

One of Gen Ed’s stated missions is to tie what students learn in the classroom to their lives in the present.

This focus on the present has met opposition from historians and classicists.

“One of the greatest dangers in contemporary society is to imagine that everything will always be the same, and that things we do now will have no repercussions in future decades or centuries,” Latin professor Kathleen M. Coleman wrote in an e-mail, adding that she is hopeful that Gen Ed will find an adequate place for the study of the past.

History department Chair James T. Kloppenberg echoed these concerns.

“The world we inhabit has been shaped by historical change,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Without understanding the past, we can have only a superficial sense of the present and a shallow sense of the limitations and possibilities we’ll confront in the future.”

But Kloppenberg said that unlike some of his colleagues, he is confident that historical study will play a role in five categories: U.S. in the World, Culture and Belief, Ethical Reasoning, Societies of the World, and Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding.

To make up for the lack of a History category, the curricular review voted to require students to take one Gen Ed course that is engaged “substantially with the study of the past.”

What that means will depend on the Gen Ed committee’s interpretation.

“Even things like Aesthetic and Interpretative Understanding and Ethical Reasoning, you can have study of historical works and history going on in them,” said Gen Ed committee member Alexander N. Chase-Levenson ’08, a History and Literature concentrator in Winthrop House. “So there is definitely a place for history in the new curriculum.”


Even though these differences are beginning to come to light, Gen Ed is still struggling to offer a distinct and coherent vision of a liberal arts education.

“There’s this fear among the committee and the broader faculty and student community that we’re just going to have a rebranded Core, and that’s why this process of review is so important—because basically we have nothing but the names and this broad sense we should be giving people an education that is relevant,” Li said.

Some professors are uncertain about exactly what kinds of courses the committee is looking for.

“My colleagues talk about it quite a bit, and they are very eager to be fully involved, but they still have some questions about the final picture of Gen Ed as it progresses,” Duffy said.

History professor Charles S. Maier ’60, a former Crimson editorial chair, likened the Final Report of the Task Force on General Education to a generic floor-plan.

“Builders will work with blueprints, and if you see the blueprints and see the specs, you know what the building will look like,” he said. “But if you see a floor-plan, you don’t know anything about the vertical walls. You only see the footprints. These are not blueprints, the Gen Ed criteria.”

—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at