Liberal Artifice: How the “Liberal Arts” Can Mean More Than a Buzzword

At the beginning of the school year, Harvard College’s mission was tossed around over and over again: It seeks “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society...through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” After a semester, I expected this “transformative power” to be cemented in my mind, and to learn about how I would be changed for the better in my time here. That has not been the case.

Speaking as a freshman, my exposure to the “liberal arts” at Harvard has left me with the impression that the term is nothing more than a buzzword. It has become clear to me that the General Education requirements—the College’s main institution for educating students in the liberal arts—are troublesome courses that students feel they need to get over with as soon as possible.

While their reevaluation has been a step in the right direction, the foremost problem with the liberal arts at Harvard is students’ lack of identification with their core principles, a cultural deficit that incoming freshman immediately encounter and accept upon their arrival here. In order to meaningfully enact an ethos rooted in the transformative power of the liberal arts, no amount of curriculum shifting can be adequate: Gen Eds need to play a more fundamental, intimate role in the Harvard experience.

“Liberal” conveys the concept of freedom. “Arts” communicates the creative mediums by which individuals seek expression. Altogether, the liberal arts set people free—free to think for themselves, free to consider other viewpoints, and free to communicate their ideas and opinions. In order to educate citizens and citizen-leaders, Harvard must instill free thinking because it is necessary to be informed and engaged. In short, beyond our individual academic interests, we must all cultivate an ability to independently read, listen, think, communicate, and act.

A properly functioning Gen Ed system would do this by exposing students to different methods of thinking. The Gen Ed requirement categories aim to train students to think through humanistic, quantitative, scientific, historical, social, and civic lenses.

But in February 2015, the General Education Review Committee’s Interim Report declared the obvious: Students and faculty often do not understand Gen Ed’s grounding principles, Gen Ed courses do not always fulfill their ideological goals, non-departmental Gen Ed courses have a median class size of 50 to 99 students, and, most importantly, Gen Eds do not occupy a substantial place in Harvard’s identity. These issues impoverish the liberal arts: If we do not understand the Gen Ed program, how can we uphold its principles? Moreover, with such large median class sizes, discussions are too broad to involve communication, contention, and resolution.

Of course, the Gen Ed program as it stands is not meritless. The problem is that the categories have become isolated components of our curriculum, an exercise in getting things done quickly. As a freshman, I’ve invested far more time into the minutiae of scheduling than considering Gen Ed’s ideals. Recent reform has reframed Gen Ed: new categories, new labels, new course arrangements, and new principles. This reevaluation is an important step, but we must get to the root: our culture. If the Gen Ed categories represent the ways Harvard students should perceive the world, they should pervade the Harvard experience.

Discussions, speakers, and town halls could be an expansion of Gen Ed requirements, giving students the opportunity to encounter liberal arts thinking outside the course catalog. In the spirit of student communication and interaction, we need an emphasis on small group discussion outside the classroom. We need to connect with those who think differently, who have different mindsets and worldviews. Above all else, we need to embrace the discomfort of trying on new ways of thinking about the world, however unfamiliar they may feel to us.

Gen Ed reform cannot solely be rooted in the curriculum, or else the program will remain isolated and distinct from any form of communal identity we can form around the liberal arts. If we present current and incoming students with a better appreciation for the Gen Ed program at Harvard, we can better work towards understanding our “transformation” into the citizens and citizen-leaders of our world.

Richard P. Wang ’20, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Straus Hall.

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