General Education: The Forgotten Goals

Program Altered Much Since Debut in 1945

At the end of World War II, a select Faculty committee recommended a program of "general education" designed to solve most of the problems which faced Harvard College--aside from the lack of dormitory space. The re-report was received enthusiastically, and the program it recommended put into effect with only minor changes.

It is now possible, however, to satisfy all of the requirements which that program imposed with courses which cannot possibly achieve any of the objectives which the committee originally set forth. Either the program is in desperate need of reform or the original objectives were not worth pursuing.

Before 1945, a student in Harvard College was subjected to the "essentially negative" distribution requirement that he take "two or three courses of something--almost anything" outside of his field of concentration. In that year, however, the Committee on the Objectives of a General Education in a Free Society delivered its report to President Conant. That report--the venerable and moribund Redbook--recommended the substitution of a quite positive prescription: All students would take the same lower-level Humanities course, the same Social Sciences course, and one of two courses in the Natural Sciences. In addition, they would take three more courses outside of their department of concentration, two of them outside of the area (Hum, Nat Sci, or Soc Sci) in which that department fell.

Choice Limited

"This choice will, however," the Redbook insisted, "be confined to the courses approved by the proposed Committee on General Education as fulfilling the aims of general education. Courses narrowly specialistic would be excluded from those satisfying these requirements."


The Redbook (officially titled General Education in a Free Society) described rather precisely the form the lower-level courses should take. The Humanities course was to cover intensively somewhat less than eight books selected from a list which "might include Homer, one or two of the Greek tragedies, Plato, the Bible, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy."

In the Social Sciences, it suggested a course it called "Western Thought and Institutions," which would cover social thought from the Greeks, though "Aquinas, Machiavelli, Luther, Bodin, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Bentham, and Mill," to the present day. The course would also include enough history to enable students to understand what they read in its proper historical context.

Undergraduates were to have their choice of two courses in the Natural Sciences, one centered around physics and the other, apparently for the benefit of those who had difficulty dealing with quantitative methods, around biology. Both courses were to include reading in original sources and to attempt to place the problems and principles with which they dealt in their appropriate historical setting.

Specific Recommendations

These specific recommendations for Harvard College were the result of a discussion which ranged over the whole field of education in the United States. The Committee had divided all education into two parts, general and special. General education, it said, was education which prepared a man for "life as a responsible human being and citizen," while special education was designed as preparation for a particular occupation. When the Committee then turned its gaze to Harvard College, special education was identified with the instruction a student received in his field of concentration, and courses outside of that field were regarded as part of his general education.

At this point the Committee made clear a distinction which has been muddied by writers on the subject ever since. All six of the courses which a student would take to satisfy the Gen Ed requirement were to be ("good Gen Ed" (non-specialized, well-taught, interesting).

Ideas and Concepts

Three of them, however, were to be something more. The Committee thought there were certain ideas and concepts that every graduate of the College ought to carry away with him. It was for this reason that it described so explicitly the lower-level Gen Ed courses.

What the Committee hoped the student would get out of the elementary Soc Sci and Hum courses is fairly obvious. The Committee described it in rather cosmic terms as "the general art of the free man and the citizen" and "an appreciation of his cultural heritage." But what it actually meant was that it thought that there were certain books a student ought to be required to read before he graduated and certain ideas to which he ought to be exposed.

It was in the Natural Sciences that the Committee was least clear about what it expected students to carry away from their lower-level Gen Ed course. The famous quotation--"The claim of general education is that the history of science is part of science"--has all too often been taken out of context, a context which provided that "this is not intended to be merely a course about science. It will contain much solid scientific content."