General Education and the Future of Liberal Arts

With the Gen Ed program up for its first five-year review, longstanding questions about the role of a college education in changing times and beyond campus remain contested.

“Taken as a whole, education seeks to do two things: help young persons fulfill the unique, particular functions in life which it is in them to fulfill, and fit them so far as it can for those common spheres which, as citizens and heirs of a joint culture, they will share with others.”

— General Education in a Free Society: Report of the Harvard Committee, 1945

An art historian, a physicist, and a scholar of Romance literatures huddle together over sandwiches, discussing the possibilities of interactive teaching. Gathered from disciplines that rarely intersect, these three professors have given up their lunch hours to trade pedagogical ideas. They are attending an informal workshop held once a semester, each centered on topics such as integrating digital technology or nontraditional assignments into curricula. These meetings aren’t part of a “big flashy initiative” to dramatically change the undergraduate curriculum, says Stephanie H. Kenen, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education, but are rather a “certain kind of slow but steady underground current of conversations about teaching.” These workshops are hosted by the Committee on General Education, and this is the kind of plodding progress that typifies the Program in General Education.

For students at the College today, Gen Ed is a constant for all, no matter their academic and extracurricular interests. Yet it’s a program still in it’s infancy, just the latest step in a series of attempts the College has made to carve out for its students a meaningful undergraduate education

Harvard College’s curriculum began as a rigid program in which all students took a nearly identical array of courses and was revolutionized at the turn of the 20th century, when then-president Charles W. Eliot promoted “spontaneous diversity of choice” and allowed undergraduates to choose most of their classes freely. In the following decades, the University instituted the concentration system and the first distribution requirements.

Then, during the summer of 1945, in the waning months of the Second World War, a Harvard committee composed of professors and administrators published a report entitled “General Education in a Free Society.” This report, more commonly known as the “Redbook,” detailed a philosophy that formulated an upheaval of the Harvard College curriculum. The Redbook curriculum, which was the first iteration of General Education at Harvard, was based on lofty democratic goals. To prevent the horrors of the war from recurring, it argued that students would need a sophisticated understanding of not only the world but also of their place in it. In the early 1980s, though, the Core Curriculum replaced General Education with a program focused on “ways of knowing” that aimed to train students to think along differing disciplinary lines.

Thirty years later, the Task Force on General Education released a series of recommendations that led to the institution of the Program in General Education—the College’s second stab at doing Gen Ed right. The Task Force envisioned a curriculum that would reinvigorate academics for the 21st-century student. The resulting Gen Ed program has been praised for allowing pedagogical creativity, but also faces criticism from frustrated professors and disinterested students stuck in classes filled beyond their capacity. Now, as the program is up for its first five-year review, the very same questions about the role of a college education in changing times and beyond campus remain contested. If the Redbook curriculum of 1945 was a sweeping, idealistic reconceptualization of undergraduate education, today’s Gen Ed seems by comparison far too quiet to fully realize its goals of rejuvenating academics at Harvard College.


By the time Gen Ed was implemented in 2008, its predecessor, the Core, had become unwieldy, full of restrictions that frustrated students and professors alike. Strict limitations governed the amount and kind of work that professors could assign in Core classes, complicating the ways in which they were able to design syllabi. The Core also limited the flexibility of the curriculum for undecided students and rendered it difficult to switch concentrations. Requirements were dependent upon department, but few departmental courses counted as Core requirements.

“The menu of student options was very small. You needed to satisfy a requirement in a specific area, in a given semester—and there might be only 10 courses or less offered,” says Louis Menand, an English professor who co-chaired the original Gen Ed Task Force.

The fundamental problems of the Core, however, lay not in the technicalities of its implementation, but instead in its very conception. “The Core suffered from what I call academic narcissism,” says Harry R. Lewis, a computer science professor and former Dean of the College from 1995-2003.

Menand explains that the Core focused on teaching students how to think like academics in different disciplines. The Gen Ed Task Force, in response, “flipped [the rationale of the Core] on its head,” Menand says. “Instead of bringing the students into our world as scholars and researchers, we made our scholarship and research relevant to the lives that students will lead [after college].”

The road to developing a new curriculum was a long one. As early as 2004, a committee of about 20 faculty members and administrators had started meeting every week and continued to do so for two years, even during the summer, hoping to devise a solution to the problems of the Core. The plan proposed by this committee—a simple distribution requirement—never went to vote.

Discussions of a new plan of study at last began to solidify in 2006, when the Task Force in General Education replaced the committee, with Menand and philosophy professor Alison Simmons as its co-chairs. This Task Force was a group of six professors, two undergraduates, and an administrator, Kenen. “Partly just because of [its smaller] size, we were able to make a lot more progress than the very large committee,” says Simmons of the Task Force, also citing the presence on the committee of only one administrator, Kenen, who is now Administrative Director of the Gen Ed program. “I think that gave us a certain amount of liberty to start thinking creatively.”

For the Gen Ed Task Force, thinking creatively meant questioning the very purpose of college-level education and re-evaluating the place of a general curriculum in an atmosphere of increasing pre-professionalism. The statistic that fewer than 10 percent of Harvard students go on to careers in academia sparked the reconsideration of the importance of strict disciplinary training, which had been essential to the Core.

“You can see Gen Ed as trying to realize that vision in the kind of clear-headed awareness that our students are not going to go on to become like us,” says philosophy professor Edward J. Hall, current chair of the Committee on General Education. “Some percentage will go on to become pointy-headed academics like Stephanie [Kenen] and me… But a lot of them are going to be doing very different things. And you still want the courses to stick.”

The committee aimed to place Gen Ed in a distinct role between concentration requirements and electives, the other two components of undergraduate academic life, according to Simmons. If concentration requirements encourage specialization and depth, and electives offer broad exploration unfettered by curricular specificity, Gen Ed classes were meant to link the academic experience with the world beyond.

The Task Force aimed to do this by creating courses with curricula that would break out of the self-referential mold of traditional academia. The lengthy category titles (although “a bit baroque and pretentious,” for Lewis) were intended to cut across disciplines to create categories that did not align exactly with University departments. Such categories “would jar you into thinking about why you’re doing what you do,” Simmons says.

The Task Force’s discussions raised difficult questions about the place of different modes of thought in an essential undergraduate education—questions which became tied up with interdepartmental tensions. “It was a political thing,” Lewis says. One of the proposed Gen Ed requirements that was never realized was “Religion and Faith,” for which Simmons and others advocated; some faculty, however, feared that the requirement would place undue emphasis on religion in the secular environment of the College. The category, though, was intended to examine religion through philosophical, anthropological, and historical lenses.

The Task Force ultimately decided on the creation of the eight categories familiar to all undergraduates today: 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 United States in the World. One of these courses must engage with the “Study of the Past.”

The Task Force was disbanded before the Gen Ed program went into effect in fall of 2008. Today, its work continues through the Standing Committee on General Education, a group composed of faculty members, undergraduates, and Kenen that explores pedagogical issues in bi-weekly meetings, in which they discuss proposals for new Gen Ed classes. It is largely through these meetings that Gen Ed works to carry out its mission of making a broad curriculum also a stimulating one.


When Katherine K. Merseth, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, submitted her first proposal for a United States in the World course, she had already spent six months developing its syllabus with a research assistant. The Committee on General Education, however, asked her to revise the proposal to make it better suited for a general audience of undergraduates. It would take three more tries before her course was, at last, approved.

“It felt a little bit like I was shooting in the dark,” Merseth says of her experience adjusting her proposal. The review process led her to broaden the scope of the course, give it deeper historical context, and create “more of an intellectual backbone,” she says. Despite her frustration with the long process, “in hindsight it’s a stronger course because of that.” Her class, titled USW 35: “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education,” is highly praised by students and received an overall Q-guide score of 4.46 out of a possible 5 in the fall of 2012.

Caroline Light, a lecturer on Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, says her course, USW 26: “Sex and the Citizen” has changed enormously over the years she has been teaching it as a result of mentoring from the Committee. “I’ve worked really hard to particularly sculpt the assignments around what I perceive to be the students’ needs and expectations—for instance: level of challenge, pacing, experience with digital technology,” she says. “I worked to make the course a better reflection of what the students are expecting and needing intellectually.” Today, Light herself serves on the Committee on Gen Ed.

Even professors who have not yet taught Gen Ed classes cite the program as a source of pedagogical inspiration. Chemistry and chemical biology professor Tobias Ritter, who joined the Committee on Gen Ed this semester, says he thinks his recent membership will improve his own teaching. “I’m already thinking about how I can change my current [non-Gen Ed] class to implement what I’m learning about new teaching techniques… through those proposals—through my colleagues—that otherwise I wouldn’t even have had access to.” For Ritter, one of the key lessons offered by Gen Ed is the importance of clarifying why students are learning what they learn—a question he believes is often lost in the standard shuffle of teaching.

Another strength of the Gen Ed program over the Core is its commitment to interdisciplinary teaching, says Andrew Berry, a lecturer on organismic and evolutionary biology who has taught two separate Gen Ed classes over several years. The Science of Living Systems course he teaches with History of Science Department Chair Janet Browne, “Understanding Darwinism,” thrives on the collaboration of two professors of different disciplines, he believes. “You can’t [teach in a historical context] all the time in a science course, but it gives a better appreciation of the idea if you look at the struggles and hurdles to get over before getting to that idea,” he says. “And vice versa; you get a much better appreciation of the history if you have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the idea.” The class earned an overall Q-guide score of 4.29 in the spring of 2011, with one evaluator commenting on the value of this interplay: “The Browne-Berry double-act is priceless.”

The Gen Ed program is often the space in which experimentation in pedagogy is discussed and develops. A section of the Task Force’s 2007 report is specifically dedicated to the topic, emphasizing the importance of rethinking course structure and making assignments interactive.

Physics and history of science professor Peter Galison’s class titled “The Einstein Revolution,” a Science of the Physical Universe Gen Ed, incorporates elements of the flipped classroom, a system in which lectures become digitally enabled homework and class time is devoted to interactive assignments and discussion. The flipped classroom, Galison says, is “particularly well-suited to Gen Ed because the Gen Ed courses are very deliberately not focused on a single specialized group. It really has to address people from every discipline.”

Today, Kenen says, the Gen Ed program is able to inspire critical thinking—like during its meetings over lunch—about how to teach students whose academic backgrounds, technology use, and peer culture may feel alien to some professors. “[There’s] sometimes concern and sometimes excitement about how to be an effective teacher in a changing environment,” Kenen says. “There aren’t obvious places to have that sort of conversation because the faculty are so busy doing other things.”


Despite its potential to energize classrooms, Gen Ed is often a source of frustration for many students who do not understand the logic behind its requirements. Arpon P. Raksit ’15 describes the confusion of friends who have taken Economics 1011a: “Microeconomic Theory,” instead of the course Economics 10: “Principles of Economics.” Both courses fulfill an Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning Gen Ed requirement, but only Economics 10 counts for United States and the World. Although he believes these students who take the former class learn just as much about U.S. economic policy as they would in Economics 10, these students cannot receive USW Gen Ed credit for their higher-level course. “Things like that seem silly,” he says.

For the Gen Ed Committee, courses in the program must do much more than simply cover material in a given category; they must provide students with both breadth and depth of understanding of that category. The Committee begins its process of course review by comparing proposed syllabi to the description of the intended function of its category. “One big question [the Committee asks] is always: If this was the only class a student took in this category, would that be sufficient?” says Ritter.

As Raksit’s example suggests, though, this method carries the risk of rigidity, a characteristic of the Core program that the designers of the Gen Ed program sought to improve. And while Berry’s interdisciplinary approach and Galison’s innovative class structure signal Gen Ed’s success in promoting some of the teaching practices outlined by the original Task Force, the program struggles to realize some of the other goals set forth in the 2007 report.

Large class sizes, an issue the Task Force had cautioned against, remain a point of contention for students and faculty. Because Gen Ed classes are taught for a college-wide audience and there are a limited number offered each semester, many inevitably draw large crowds. These large classes often suffer from a dearth of adequately-trained teaching fellows, leading to highly variable teaching in sections. Large classes can also result in the pedagogical challenges that Gen Ed aimed to improve, as they limit direct interaction between professors and students. And yet other Gen Ed classes, often those that maintain a reputation for rigor, are kept disproportionately small, leading to a lopsided distribution of students between classes.

Course workload and professors’ expectations also vary widely across courses. “If…your professor’s likely to ask you what you thought about last night’s readings, you might move it up in your priority list,” says Merseth, who frequently cold-calls on the students in her USW class and places heavy emphasis on activity-based learning. “But if it’s just a sit-and-passively-get kind of class, then I wouldn’t do the readings either.”

Not all professors teaching in Gen Ed, however, have the same expectations. Instead, often “there’s a little bit of a race-to-the-bottom pressure [on professors] to reduce the amount of work and the intensity of the course requirements in order to attract student enrollments into the course,” says Logan S. McCarty, lecturer on physics and chemistry and chemical biology.

This situation often creates a feedback loop in which neither students nor professors strive for high levels of engagement in Gen Ed courses. Of course, such a system is far from the intentions of the Gen Ed program and the interests of most professors. Yet an “unspoken contract” can develop, McCarty explains, in which students expect minimal workload, and faculty are willing to teach as long as students enroll in high numbers.

Consequently, the tenor of Gen Ed classes tends to be markedly different from that of concentration-specific courses, in which students are more likely to enroll out of genuine interest. “The best thing that I experience in my Math classes or my Computer Science classes is that everyone is extremely interested in the material and very invested,” says Raksit, a mathematics concentrator. “I think that’s almost entirely absent from the Gen Ed classes I’ve taken.”


McCarty attributes the oft-minimal importance students place on Gen Ed classes to a student culture that emphasizes the extracurricular over the academic. Among extracurricular and vocational commitments, Gen Ed is placed at the bottom of an increasingly long list of priorities.

And if students are doing much of their learning outside of the classroom, the program’s emphasis on making academia relevant outside of students’ particular interests may miss the mark: Some students argue, in fact, that an awareness of the wider world is best taught outside of the classroom instead. “I think a lot of the skills that go into things that aren’t academia are more on the level of communication,” says Raksit. “That’s not necessarily something that you have to teach in Gen Eds.”

So while the Report of the Task Force on Gen Ed from 2007 details that an important component of its mission is to provide “a general education curriculum that is responsive to the conditions of the twenty-first century,” it cannot account for the fact that twenty-first century students work in a college environment in which “the amount of space…for academic work has diminished,” according to McCarty.

Kenen points to Gen Ed’s potential to affect students’ current lives. “A lot of learning happens in the extracurricular world, a lot of intellectual learning, practical learning—being in the world learning—and the disconnect between that and the academic lives of our students is sometimes surprising,” she says. “It’s certainly surprising to the faculty.” But somewhat ironically, the Gen Ed program is in many ways directed at the needs and interests of a student body that is already looking outward—but beyond the classroom walls. The Gen Ed vision of integrated extracurricular and academic realms still seems distant.


For some students, the goals of Gen Ed have been more fully realized. Like Raksit and others, Cara M. Weisman ’14 didn’t always appreciate the Gen Ed system. As a molecular and cellular biology concentrator, she couldn’t understand why an English class she had taken on Oscar Wilde, her favorite author, didn’t satisfy her Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding requirement.

After working on the Committee on General Education, however, Weisman says she has come to understand the criteria that separates Gen Ed classes from simple electives. “I think I’m actually much more positive about what the Gen Ed is trying to do, because all of its goals seem reasonable,” she says.

Perhaps this will be Gen Ed’s greatest difficulty in the years to come: Beyond implementing its mission, the program may struggle to communicate its goals to the students it tries to serve. To become invested in the program, students must understand its rationale. “I think creating a culture and atmosphere of receptivity is really important to the Gen Ed,” Weisman says, “and I don’t think that’s possible unless they really get the word out about why they think that [the program] is important.”

Barr Yaron ’14, another member of the committee, agrees. She would like students to possess “a clear sense of the purpose of each class in the Gen Ed program, why it’s in that category, and why it’s in the Gen Ed family.” Through understanding the restrictions and possibilities of Gen Ed, Yaron believes, students will become excited about its mission.

Dhruv P. Goyal ’16, whose work for the Undergraduate Council’s Education Committee has also given him reason to think about Gen Ed more closely, is quick to recount the story of how Diana Eck’s Culture and Belief course, “Hindu Worlds of Art and Culture,” changed his perception of Indian politics. Although Goyal is from India and has focused his studies on government and politics, the Gen Ed system injected a new and surprising perspective into his studies, reshaping the boundaries with which he approached the topic at hand. “[CB 28] helped me understand one more facet of Indian politics, which is really the intersection between religion and politics—in my own country,” he says. “That’s the beauty of a Harvard education.”

The unspoken promise of Gen Ed was just this kind of success story that Goyal describes: an institutionalized opportunity to rethink thinking and relearn learning. The Gen Ed program of today, however, for all its advances, does not go so far as the radical reinvention of 1945’s Redbook curriculum. The Redbook, printed by Harvard University Press, sold thousands of copies in its first month of printing. It was a report meant to be read—by students and by educators, at Harvard and across the nation.

Most of today’s students at the College, though, have never read the 2007 Task Force’s report on Gen Ed, and the vast majority of them will never serve on the Standing Committee in Gen Ed, in which they might examine the system more intimately. This means that many will have no knowledge of the basic principles that underlie their curriculum. These students simply see eight categories that need to be crossed off a list: eight boxes to check. For these students, it seems, faculty conversations over lunch may not be enough to overcome curricular stagnation and make general education a source of intellectual stimulation.