The Failure of General Education

This school year Harvard College completed its six-year transition to the new Program in General Education. For all undergraduate students, the Gen Ed program requires completion of a course in each of eight categories: “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.” It also requires that one of these courses engage with the study of the past. The aim of the program is to expose students to a “broad range of topics and approaches” and to connect a student’s education to “life beyond college.” Effectively, General Education is what makes Harvard a liberal arts college.

Unfortunately, the program is not succeeding in its goals. The predominant sign of this failure is the student attitude toward Gen Ed classes. Many empirical reasoning and science classes are regarded as intellectually insubstantial and are chosen solely for this reason. Humanities courses are likewise scouted for easy grading and little work. Across the board, Gen Eds are regarded as less important than concentration or elective classes. In many cases a culture develops of not doing readings and paying little attention in class. These lectures are the first to be skipped, often with couched pride after “still getting an A.” The general attitude is not of becoming educated, but simply of fulfilling requirements as efficiently as possible.

This problem goes beyond the system or implementation of the Gen Ed ideal. It is fundamentally rooted in the conflicting missions of the student body and the College. While Gen Ed aims to provide a broad and liberal education, a consumerist reality means students have an eye on attaining ends. This is especially true at a school that only accepts extremely high-achieving applicants. Students take classes with their future in mind: getting into graduate school or medical school, acquiring useful skills, fostering a resume.

If this student attitude is a modern phenomenon, it is a result of social change and transition. The importance of broad education is rooted in class traditions that once demanded students to develop a breadth of diverse knowledge. Today, the learning process is much more compartmentalized. Literature and music can be irrelevant in the life of a engineer. It is a trope that humanities majors pride themselves on their inability to perform basic science and math.

This is not to say that General Education classes never succeed. Many faculty members, inspired by the opportunity to share knowledge with a broad range of students, offer phenomenal courses through the Gen Ed program. Many students find fascination and enlightenment in fields outside their concentration. Yet there is no faith in the system.  General Education appeals to a “spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility” and “an opportunity to learn and reflect in an environment free from most of the constraints on time and energy that operate in the rest of life.” These ideals are simply not present among the current student body.

Harvard College needs to reconsider and restructure its curriculum to provide education for a post-modern age. If it is to fulfill the needs of the students it accepts, the General Education requirement should be removed. The classes themselves should stay, but the compulsion to undertake the process of erudition for the sake of completing requirements fuels reluctance and apathy towards many Gen Ed classes. If the College wishes to effectively maintain a mandatory liberal arts curriculum it must find a way to recreate the incentive structure behind liberal arts classes by fostering an attitude toward education in line with General Education ideals. Both students and the College should be encouraged to think critically about the meaning and purpose of a so-called “general education” at Harvard.

Benjamin M. Woo ’13 is a cognitive science and music concentrator in Adams House.

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