The Faculty Council last week expressed support for removing the words "in General Studies" from the Cum Laude in General Studies degree. Under this plan, students would be able to graduate cum laude without being honors concentrators. Despite its intuitive appeal, we oppose this course of action for several reasons.
In fact, we are opposed to having a Cum Laude in General Studies (CLGS) degree at all. Students should decide whether or not they want to graduate with honors and then take all steps necessary to bring that about. There is no need for maintaining the confusing limbo of a CLGS degree. Despite our position on CLGS itself, what's on the table at the current time is the retitling of the CLGS degree, and it is this proposal that we will examine.
The change does have its advantages. One faculty member in favor of the retitling argued that the "general studies" part of the degree simply generates confusion. Other faculty members who support the proposal cited the concerns of students who graduate CLGS. The current CLGS degree makes it appear as if they did not concentrate in anything, they claim. Furthermore, it makes these students feel that they have a "second-class" status. The change would address these concerns.
These advantages are outweighed by the value of having a system that distinguishes between honors and non-honors concentrators. Removing the "General Studies" from the CLGS degree essentially puts students who graduate CLGS on equal footing with students graduating with cum laude honors in their concentrations.
Unlike the existing system, the new plan does not reward those students who choose to put in the extra effort required to obtain honors in their concentration. In most of the humanities and social sciences, graduating with honors entails writing a thesis. In these concentrations, the proposed devaluation would not be a small one.
On a more practical level, the change could have significant negative effects. As Secretary to the Faculty Council John B. Fox, Jr. '59 noted, the change could cause the number of students who choose to pursue honors in their concentration to decrease.
If a student can graduate with honors without taking a more rigorous honors track, why would he or she wish to put in the additional effort? Students who want to graduate magna or summa cum laude would still take the honors track, but they would have done so regardless of the change. Certainly there are many reasons to take an honors track that are unrelated to what degree one receives upon graduating, but the importance of this motivation cannot be ignored.
One reform in the awarding of degrees that deserves consideration has to do with the need for greater consistency. People should know what it means to graduate from Harvard with honors in a concentration. Currently, students in certain concentrations (especially in the natural sciences) can graduate with honors without writing theses or undertaking similar research.
We believe that all honors concentrators should be required to undertake a major project that would serve as the capstone of their academic experience at Harvard. That project could be a senior thesis, a scientific research project or something of similar magnitude.
Not all disciplines would be equally amenable to such a proposal. While we recognize that it may be difficult to set up such senior year projects in the sciences, we believe that students should at least be required to engage in some sustained research that could serve as a fitting culmination to their academic career.
Although such a step is not under consideration at this point in time, we favor eliminating the CLGS degree entirely. This unnecessary distinction unfairly devalues the extra work done by honors concentrators. But if we cannot discard the CLGS degree, having a consistent standard on what it takes to obtain honors in a field is the best way of addressing concerns related to CLGS. While it may not change the fact that CLGS students may feel they have a "second-class" status, it at least establishes a clear and definite reason for why some students are placed a cut above the rest.