A General Overhaul for General Education

The Faculty needs to think bigger in its Gen Ed proposals

Students, faculty, and administrators all know that the College’s Program in General Education is broken. Last spring, a report from a faculty review committee found the program “failing on a variety of fronts,” and the College continues to search for solutions. Most recently, at last week’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Committee on Undergraduate Education meetings, members of the review committee introduced proposals that would streamline the program.

One suggested change would require students to take four courses similar to current Gen Ed classes as well as one distribution requirement in each of the College’s three divisions—Sciences, Social Sciences, and Arts and Humanities. Students would also need to take one mathematics-based course, equivalent to the current Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning requirement.

It is encouraging to see the faculty putting forward tangible proposals in the hopes of correcting the College’s deeply flawed Gen Ed system. But the details of the proposal from last week’s meeting do not offer the kind of change that Gen Ed needs.

Harvard’s Gen Ed program needs not just tweaking, but a broader restructuring. Right now, many courses that should fall within a certain Gen Ed area do not satisfy the requirement, and students are too often left scrambling to fulfill requirements for which they should no longer be responsible. Many see their Gen Ed requirements as carveouts for easy courses. Taken together, these side effects of Gen Ed’s structure work against the program's ambitious goals.

The ideas discussed by faculty and students last week only represent an adjustment to the current program. Broadening some of the Gen Ed areas into distribution requirements would be a step in the right direction, but maintaining four Gen Ed-like courses would likely perpetuate the same failures that plague the system today.

Instead, the Gen Ed system needs a complete overhaul. The most appealing option the committee has suggested for the College to divide each course into one of several categories and create a classic distribution requirement, giving students more flexibility to choose classes according to their interests. Some may argue it would squander the Gen Ed system’s goal of preparing students for the art of living as “mature adults in the world at large,” but the program’s level of success so far highlights the impracticality of so ambitious an aim.

A strong program for giving students a broad-based education is critical to Harvard’s role as a liberal arts school. That is why the College must continue to explore alternatives to the current system. As faculty continue to fine-tune their proposals, they should aim for big changes, and not allow Gen Ed's current flaws to sneak into its future iterations.

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