A Misguided Proposal

The new General Education proposal fails to address the program’s core issues

Since the release last May of a report that deemed Harvard College’s Program in General Education “failing on a variety of fronts,” there has been broad consensus among students and faculty of the need for reform: Gen Ed's requirements are too restrictive, and many of the courses are simply lacking in quality. They faculty are right to complain about Gen Ed in its current form. But the solution they've proposed to fix the program is all wrong.

This week, faculty members were presented with a three-pronged proposal for the future of General Education. The new proposal would require students to take a total of eight courses: One course from each of four new General Education subgroups, one course in each of the three divisions of the Faculty of Arts of Sciences, and one quantitative course. The proposal was met with overwhelming praise at the semester’s last meeting of FAS professors; a vote on the plan is likely in the spring.

At the core of this proposal is the University administration’s steadfast refusal to realize the flaws of the current Program in General Education. The faculty proposal assumes that the program is failing due to poor organization of requirements. Yet General Education’s failing are far more deep-rooted, as we have said before. Too many classes should but do not count toward the requirements. All too common is the mathematics concentrator who still needs to fulfill Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning or the philosophy concentrator yet to complete the Ethical Reasoning requirement. The limited selection within subfields often leads students to see General Education courses as a constraint to their education, rather than an enhancement—a key problem that the proposal entirely fails to address.

Moreover, the proposal put forth by the review committee presents an overly complex solution that is symptomatic of the bureaucratization of higher education, both nationwide and here at Harvard. The “three prongs” of the proposal adds a layer of inaccessibility and confusion to the Program in General Education that previously did not exist—finding classes to fulfill the myriad requirements promises to be even more difficult than it already is. The philosophical underpinnings meant to serve a justification for the program are insufficient to validate the its complexity.

We have previously suggested that the College move towards a system of distribution requirements. We maintain that belief. Such a system would be able to satisfy the liberal arts philosophy by allowing students to choose a diverse set of courses, but in a way that better allows individuals to cater to their personal intellectual interests.

Not all of the ideas outlined in the committee’s proposal are misguided: It is encouraging that the proposal recommends administrators devote increased funding to the program, especially given past problems with understaffed courses. However, the proposal as a whole entirely misses the mark. At its core, the proposal puts forth an overly complicated solution that suffers from an acute misdiagnosis of the program’s root problems and neglects a clear solution in distribution requirements. The proposal favors complexity and control over simplicity and substance, to the detriment of the program and the students.

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