The program of General Education that came from General Education in a Free Society fifteen years ago reflected well the intentions that President Conant expressed when he appointed the Committee on the Objectives of General Education in a Free Society. That Committee had two purposes: one general, to provide a counterbalance for the department scholarship that dominated undergraduate teaching, and one specific, to create a program that would put Harvard in touch with a growing sense among the nation's intellectuals that higher education was neglecting the great books and ideas, which were the foundation of the Western intellectual heritage.
This second intention had no especially remarkable implications for courses about history, literature, or philosophy. But the program was set up to span the intellectual range of the University, and when the Committee tried to outline courses in the sciences that would fit within a framework of studying the Western intellectual heritage it ran into severe difficulties. The resolution was to teach science through the case method and the history of science, a method that produced several excellent courses but was a very compromised way of introducing students to modern science.
Less than ten years ago, a new General Education program began to emerge in the midst of the old Social Sciences 1, originally put in the curriculum in order to placate the History Department, began to turn into a pure history course; Humanities 6, a course designed to teach students how to read, was added to the curriculum; and Jerome Bruner, with George Miller, set up Social Sciences 8--a survey of the modern behavioral sciences. Finally Bruner chaired a committee that reevaluated the teaching of the Natural Sciences program.
The Bruner committee was established because very few scientists felt comfortable with the Natural Sciences program suggested by General Education in a Free Society, and, consequently, it was exceedingly difficult to get scientists to teach in the program. The committee proposed that General Education courses teach science instead of the history of science and explore one field deeply instead of using the case method. Those who cleaved to the program Conant had supported were profoundly dissatisfied with the proposal and when it was adopted with the support of the General Education committee, some of those who had worked hardest on the old Natural Sciences program felt betrayed.
By this time, then, there were two entirely different General Education programs operating simultaneously: one historical and rooted in Western traditions, the other contemporary and devoted to teaching in a liberal vein. A situation of incipient chaos was aggravated by two academic innovations that became law under the sponsorship of then-Dean McGeorge Bundy.
The first of these was the Advanced Placement program, which permitted a student who had done college-level work in three subjects to enter as a sophomore, and to skip two of his required General Education courses. This led, in turn, to a well-founded suspicion that someone in a position of authority thought that General Education courses were more or less interchangeable with other courses and also thought that three college-level courses of any sort could be equated in some way with two General Education courses. The second confusing innovation was the Freshman Seminar program--for suddenly the General Education committee found itself under strong pressure to count some of the Freshman Seminars as equivalent to General Education courses.
In effect, the only criteria by which the Committee was judging proposed course in 1960 were that the teacher be acceptable, the course be general, and the relevant department be unwilling to offer the course. Even the last two of these criteria were not applied very seriously in the sciences. And under these circumstances, it was understandable that the Committee could not cope effectively with the challenge of the Freshman Seminar program.
Since 1955 the General Education program has been held together by the personalities of Kenneth B. Murdock and John H. Finley, Jr., the last two chairmen of the committee. But there was little left of the original program except a conviction that General Education lay outside of the departments, and there was no co-herent policy within the program.
A well-meaning CRIMSON editor even suggested turning the Freshman Seminar program over to the General Education Committee, on the grounds that General Education didn't have a program, so there could be no conflict, and both were potentially good things, and should be under the same administration.
At this juncture, President Pusey appointed a committee under Paul Doty to reevaluate the entire program.
When Conant appointed the committee that formulated the original program, he explained that he had used the phrase "General Education" because he knew that many scholars felt their discipline provided a liberal education if properly taught, but he thought that few would claim that their field provided a general education. That distinction is the crux of one of the major problems that confronts the Doty committee.
A second important distinction has been obscured by the trichotomy of Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences which was used instead of the more appropriate dichotomy of Science and Humanities. In terms of any program of education, chemistry has more in common with mathematical economics than does history. But the General Education program established categories based upon the Western heritage and tradition, and in order to treat the sciences in the same way as the other fields, the trichotomy was necessary.
For purposes of teaching, there are three critical differences between sciences and humanities. Science tends to be much more concerned with the ordering and manipulation of information than with the information to be handled, while the humanities tend to be rather more concerned with the portion of history, the system of philosophy, or the period of literature under discussion. Science tends to be entirely preoccupied with the present, while the humanities is built upon a concern for works of the past--the concern of a physicist with Newton has almost nothing in common with the concern of an English scholar with Shakespeare. And in science, truth is single, there is only one correct answer to a question, whereas in the humanities there are many answers to all but the most trivial questions.