When I received my readers’ comments on my thesis last month, they both praised the essay’s “creativity,” while informing me, in very polite terms, that it lacked the “rigor” that defines academic scholarship. I did not find this evaluation surprising. But seeing it written down alongside a grade made me question whether I had drifted through my degree without ever becoming “educated” in some essential sense. Had I, I wondered, somehow failed to obtain what Harvard’s Core Curriculum calls “the knowledge, intellectual skills, and habits of thought” of an “educated” person?
It is an odd moment to worry about such things. The educational requirements that I and my fellow seniors fulfilled are now being phased out. The “Core Curriculum,” established in 1978 to define “a standard that meets the needs of the late twentieth century,” has become outmoded, defunct, quaint. Now, “General Education” is being rolled out to replace it.
On face, the Core and Gen Ed aren’t particularly different. At times, Gen Ed even looks like nothing more than a rehashed Core. Both programs demand that students take classes outside their specialized areas. Both advocate the development of a specific set of such courses for non-specialists to ensure that each student gains something the college can call a “liberal arts education.” And both subdivide such courses into eight subject areas, some of which map onto each other with absurd precision. Did we really wait four years to see the “Literature and Arts” requirement renamed “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding?” “Moral Reasoning,” renamed “Ethical Reasoning?”
PARALLEL PATHS, DIVERGENT MISSIONS
Despite their similarities, these parallel programs emerged from very different moments in history. The Core, spearheaded by then-Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky, grew out conflicting desires. The Faculty tried simultaneously to reclaim the university’s authority over what a college education should mean after the permissive 1960s, and to avoid an entirely regressive return to the “Great Books” curriculum of the early twentieth century.
The curricular review sparked ferocious debate at the time. “The number of faculty members in the room for the final vote was so large that we had to move to the science center,” Government professor Jorge I. Dominguez recalled.
Debates over the new Gen Ed program, by contrast, repeatedly lacked the quorum necessary to take votes and, when they provoked emotion at all it was because they were, in former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68’s words, informed by a “turf battle mentality” whereby departments vied for representation in the curriculum.
Despite Gen Ed’s lackluster beginnings, however, it at least ditches the Core’s ideas about the universal importance of academic method. The Core demands familiarity with “the ways in which we gain knowledge;” it tries to discipline young minds into using various academic language and concepts, into thinking in “educated” terms.
Gen Ed, on the other hand, aims to “connect in an explicit way what students learn at Harvard to life beyond Harvard” such that it is revealed “how everything we teach in the arts and sciences relates to their lives.”
The Core sees education as a kind of professional training in different types of academic thinking. Gen Ed—insofar as its rather generic and all-encompassing mandate can be formulated at all—seems to take education as a development of one’s thoughtful human capacities, most important in its applications to life outside academia.
The Faculty should be congratulated, then, for moving from an understanding of education centered entirely on the importance of their profession, to an idea of education that should—in some imprecise way—encompass a student’s entire life.
STUMBLING TOWARD GENERAL EDUCATION
Unfortunately, practical change has been slow on the heels of this shift. So far, Gen Ed offerings consist more of old Core and departmental classes than newly created courses, and many professors were obliged to change absolutely nothing about their courses in order to reclassify them. (As Psychology Professor Steven Pinker, who teaches a Science B core, wrote to me in an e-mail, “I am not changing my course at all!”).
This is partly because many Gen Ed suggestions were simply common sense: Students listen more if your teaching applies to their lives. So professors incorporated positive changes as they went along.
For Dominguez, “The course had been growing by accretion,” while Environmental Science Professor Steven C. Wofsy, teacher of my excellent Science A course, “The Atmosphere,” notes that his course (which will be categorized under “Science of the Physical Universe” whenever he next teaches it) already “had many of the features that they wanted in the Gen Ed thing that they were thinking about as being new except for me they weren’t really new.”
What are we students, educated in transition, to make of this incoherence? It took the Faculty four years to introduce a well-intentioned and entirely inoffensive educational philosophy to replace the Core, and the result (at least for current students) has been a raft of new names for old courses.
The truth is that it was always possible, under the Core program, to obtain a worthwhile education at this university, and, despite the mess the Faculty has made of its reforms, it will continue to be possible under Gen Ed.
There are professors here who teach only out of obligation and there are those who genuinely care about pedagogy, and the latter will continue to innovate whether or not a report tells them to do so.
In the end, it is neither the place of University President Drew G. Faust nor the institution of Harvard to pompously welcome seniors “into the company of educated men and women” on Commencement Day, as if a mortarboard is somehow the last missing piece of the finite jigsaw of one’s “education.” The University no longer even has the chutzpah to define confidently what an “educated” person is. Gen Ed, then, is just one in a series of institutional attempts to deal with the long-term decline of institutional authority over information, which began to fall apart as soon as the business of educating split from the business of worshiping God.
Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, the Gen Ed Committee Chair, recognizes this shift. “Students don’t need the Faculty really to provide them with information any more,” he said. “[But] I think students have always needed help in what to do with information, how to process it, how to evaluate it.”
Unfortunately, Gen Ed, born of turf wars and indecision, operating in an old-fashioned bureaucratic structure, is ill-placed to be an organizing force for the “information age.” And what the Curricular Review has shown, once and for all, is that only a thoughtless student would leave it up to an institution like Harvard to decide what her education means.
It is still possible that Gen Ed will spark some worthwhile spring-cleaning and a proliferation of creative, new courses. But, either way, upon graduation, the onus is upon students to decide what our education means as a whole—and to realize that, far from being some kind of grand fortress as its end, a Harvard degree is just one of many strange, blinking lighthouses we will sail past on the way.