General Education and the Future of Liberal Arts

Scrutiny: Gen Eds
Bora Fezga

Organismic and evolutionary biology lecturer Andrew Berry, who regularly teaches two Gen Ed classes, praises the program for its potential to bridge disciplines.

“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.


FM Gen Ed Spread

FM Gen Ed Spread

Scrutiny: Gen Eds

Scrutiny: Gen Eds

FM Gen Ed Cover

FM Gen Ed Cover

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.