Gen Ed Used to Mean Something Else

The current uproar over general education, and the oft-heard demand that it be done away with as a hopeless anachronism, brings to mind the days less than three decades ago when the Gen Ed concept was considered a radical innovation in American education. Colleges all over the country enacted programs to insure that they would turn out Renaissance men.

At Chicago, the legendary Stringfellow Barr devised the Great Books program, and St. John's College, in Annapolis, Md., reverted to a program of readings in the classics substantially similar to the school's original eighteenth century curriculum.


General Education is now going out of favor. The emphasis on science following the first. Sputnik was the first blow to the idea that the well-educated man is one who has read the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Inferno. In 1966, Daniel Bell, Professor of Sociology, issued a critical re-appraisal of the Gen Ed concept, in a study commissioned by Columbia University, which was redesigning its General Education program. Since then, Gen Ed has become an increasingly unpopular idea, subjected to more and more criticism of its basic philosophy.

It would be fair to say that Gen Ed achieved its greatest impetus at Harvard. General Education in a Free Society, the report of a Harvard Faculty Committee set up to investigate the problem in 1945, became the paradigm for the re-evaluation of educational programs in high schools and colleges all over the country. The report, popularly known as the Redbook, was drawn up by a group of the finest minds in the country, including historian Paul Buck, classicist John Finley, biologist George Wald, poet I. A. Richards, former Radcliffe president W. K. Jordan, and the senior Arthur Schlesinger.


The Redbook is a long, rambling document, with essays on the state of education all over the country, both in secondary schools and in colleges. The Redbook emphasized the necessity to understand something of the traditions of Western Culture, as in this passage:

To know modern democracy is to know something at least of Jefferson, though you may not have read him; to learn to respect freedom of speech or the rights of the private conscience is not to be wholly ignorant of the "Areopagitica" or the "Antigone," though you may know nothing about them.

The concern of the Committee throughout is to produce the well rounded man, able to fulfill a useful role in society and government:

"It was Plato himself who urged that the guardians of the state should be courageous as well as wise, in other words, that they should be full-bloodedhuman beings as well as trained minds."

To this end, the Committee argued for an education which would allow for "intelligence in action," which would produce not just scholars, but leaders. The Committee outlined a program in the three major areas of learning for this purpose, but stopped short of one last recommendation.

"We are not at all unmindful of the importance of religious belief in the completely good life. But, given the American scene with its varieties of faith and even of unfaith, we did not feel justified in proposing religious instruction as part of the curriculum. The love of God is tested by the love of neighbor; nevertheless the love of God transcends merely human obligations."

Though the ideals expressed in the Redbook are the purest, the motives the highest, nonetheless the concrete proposals have largely been abandoned. According to the original plans, a student would have taken six of his sixteen courses in General Education. Of those six, one humanities course and one social sciences course would be prescribed for all students; the natural science requirement could be fulfilled by a variety of courses, according to the student's proficiency. Three more courses at a higher level would also be required, to be chosen by the student from among Gen Ed offerings.

Remedial Writing

The Committee proposed to deal with the low quality of English composition in the freshman class by requiring a remedial course in composition in the fall semester, and by assigning frequent short papers in the regular Gen Ed courses in the spring semester.

Gen Ed has grown further and further away from its original shape. The number of required courses is down from six to five, there is a greater freedom of choice and a wider range of courses. No longer are students required to take one standard freshman course in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. A plethora of Expository Writing courses has replaced remedial composition and frequent themes. But the idea still stands, and it is still under attack.

Whittling Away

Slowly, the Faculty is whittling away the Gen Ed requirements. A group of concerned Faculty members have held meetings to discuss the problems of the curriculum, and the consensus seems to be that Gen Ed has got to go. Probably, the new reforms will still attempt to fulfill the aims of education set forth by the authors of the Redbook:

"... in general education the strongest incentive comes from the whole man's awareness of his share in the common fate, of his part in the joint undertaking."

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