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General Education: II


The Faculty Committee to review General Education must already realize that it has taken up an immeasurably difficult job. Its members are to look at a program that can no longer command the enthusiasm and the attention of most of the Faculty; the fires that the simple idea of educating citizens for a free society inspired in the late forties have nearly all subsided. If Gen Ed, or something like it, is to survive it must find among the Faculty a degree and quality of commitment to its purposes that is now entirely lacking.

It is not enough, in short, that the Faculty continue listlessly to approve of--or remain neutral about--General Education. If it feels no responsibility for the program, if it is content to allow the teaching, the administration, and even the defense of it to the Finleys, the Holtons, and the Beers, it will soon become incapable of producing such men. The present situation of the program is therefore extraordinarily precarious, for by abandoning devotion to it to a group of unusually dedicated men the Faculty has withheld from Gen Ed the possibility of long endurance. The University has unconsciously and very slightly slipped toward a Chicagoan conception of Gen Ed as an undergraduate core program largely run by a faculty of its own, and separate from the graduate schools. The critical difference is that Harvard is not training new men for such a faculty, and is not recruiting any from the outside.

This is of course because Harvard does not believe in such a faculty, for the probably very just reasons that it hates to distinguish between teaching and research and thinks the presence of senior and junior-league faculties horribly demoralizing to a university. Unfortunately it does not wholeheartedly believe in General Education either, which is why it continues to count on the sudden and miraculous decisions of men like George Wald to teach in the program. To many senior men on the Faculty Gen Ed seems the province of sentimentalists sacrificing valuable scholarly time; to many teaching fellows a jumble of needlessly time-consuming, oversectioned, tedious courses; to many undergraduates a confusing and haphazard attempt to impose stray bits of knowledge. Luckily there are many exceptions, some of them beautiful: for example Wald's decision, or Beer's devices for having his section-men educate each other, or undergraduate enthusiasm for a new course such as Humanities 8. Yet still, few outside the program could be called devoted to Gen Ed.

Nobody in particular--certainly not the Gen Ed Committee--is to blame if the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has remained listless about the program to the point where it does not actively and usefully seek to perpetuate it. As educational theories do, the Redbook theory of General Education has lost not only its excitement but much of its relevance. Gen Ed is now trying to do so many different things at once that it lacks a consistent philosophical justification. It is too departmental to be anti-departmental, too unselective to try to emphasize (as the Redbook wished) the more traditional fields--Physics, Chemistry, and Biology; History and Political Philosophy; Literature--within the three areas. Those who attack the program have many arguments; those who defend it only one: we need it. And although members of the permanent Gen Ed Committee have given this defense eloquently and often, it has been unsatisfactory. For it does not say exactly what the College needs.

The Redbook was exciting because it was clear and novel doctrine; it did nothing less than state the aims of liberal education. The new Committee obviously cannot resurrect the Redbook. But they can try to see how some of its more general tenets might apply to a society and an educational system far more complex and specialized than that of 1945. All this has been said before. But it has not been emphasized enough that considering and recommending reforms in the program will not end the Committee's work. All the possible variations and improvements on Gen Ed (some of them were listed in Tuesday's editorial) will leave the University cold without some concept more definite than a cliche behind them. The Faculty will not commit itself to a program of vague phrases about great books, or glimpses into fields of study. Technique, as an earlier generation of educators put it, is helpless without vision.

In sum, the Committee cannot consider Gen Ed without considering such questions as whether its function is to impart culture, or a respect for a rational approach to the world, or a knowledge of Western (or even Eastern) institutions, or a belief in service, or good citizenship, or even just the capacity to cultivate one's garden. And it must consider whether these questions mean anything, and how far they overlab, and how much Harvard needs in the future to be concerned with any of them.

Innovations will always secure a minor revival of interest; often they will improve a program. But nothing like General Education can last in this College if the Faculty is not convincingly reminded that the doctrine of the inseparability of teaching and research does not imply that all students must be taught to research. Rather, that doctrine means what the vision of the Redbook writers tried to communicate: that the scholar and the freshman are sometimes up to exactly the same thing, and that this is nonetheless true because the freshman has not (and perhaps never will) read as much as the scholar. Welcoming deans always quote Whitehead to these freshmen, speaking of young and old minds united in the "imaginative consideration of learning." It is time to find out whether or not learning at Harvard still includes General Education.

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