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THE CURRENT General Education program has strayed from its original intentions. The idea of a well-rounded, liberal arts program has been perverted by a proliferation of upper and lower level Gen Ed offerings. Departmental bypasses have further eroded the liberal arts concept.
There seem to be two substantive ways in which the program could be reformed. A stiff core curriculum could be introduced or all requirements could be abolished. The task force on core curriculum chose the first course. It proposed this past fall that all students should be required to pick one course out of eight offered in biology, physics, math, nonwestern cultures, modern social analysis and political and moral philosophy, and one out of 12 in western culture. Other recommendations include the abolition of the language requirement and continuation of an expository writing requirement.
In defense of this strict curriculum the task force claims that students need the guidance that requirements would give them. The report says these requirements are necessary to insure that all students are exposed to those significant intellectual skills and elements of culture that, given free choice, they might well neglect and later regret having done so.
But most students who arrive at Harvard have the capacity to recognize courses that will aid their intellectual growth. The College can advise all student that a strong Gen Ed background is valuable and important. Nothing more is necessary other than the implementation of a much stronger advisory system. If students are forced into taking these courses they will probably make little attempt to learn from the subject matter.
A better solution to the dilemma posed by the confusing mass of Gen Ed requirements is to set up a totally free elective program which would eliminate the language and expository writing requirements. In its place the Faculty should offer a core of non-required courses that will serve as a basic introduction to certain subjects. The Faculty can insure that students have the option of choosing a complete general education. But students who feel they have learned enough in some areas need not enroll.
The most valuable learning experiences for both teachers and students come from courses that can withstand the test of student interest. Requirements can force students to take courses that they will not like and may not learn from. Courses that naturally attract students' interest and attention will provide a far more meaningful experience.
A much larger problem than the debate over requirements involves the role of the Faculty itself. An undergraduate education will become more valuable only after the Faculty commits itself to teaching basic introductory courses. The dean should insist that these courses be taught and devise an incentive system for professors to teach them. The task force recommended the easy way out by requiring students to take a core curriculum. The more difficult but better recommendation would be to get Faculty members to offer a liberal arts curriculum with courses in many different basic subjects that all students would find attractive.
In early May, the Faculty endorsed the underlying principle that the task force on the core curriculum expounded in its report--the need for more stringent non-concentration requirements for undergraduates. However, it voted to carry on consideration of a substantive "core program" within the framework of a five-area format that the Faculty Council proposed, rather than the Wilson committee's eight-area plan. Over the summer, two Faculty members will draw up an agenda for hammering out a detailed curriculum proposal in each of the five areas. But everyone involved in the core curriculum debate, especially Wilson and the members of his committee, insists that the five-area format is still only tentative, and that the Faculty might move back to a core program closely resembling the task force plan.
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