Hope Springs Eternal: General Studies Debunked

For seniors, it's an elusive hope if a thesis doesn't get quite done. For administrators, it's a myth to be debunked yearly. For everyone, it's confusing.

For years, Harvard seniors have assured each other that if disaster strikes and a thesis doesn't get done, another option could carry the day--the University would allow the troubled student to graduate with a degree in General Studies.

"I had heard a vague rumor that you could graduate General Studies," said Saadi Soudavar '00, a concentrator in the honors-only literature department. "I clung to it for hope during the last few weeks before my thesis deadline."

But a General Studies diploma--a degree awarded by the College without the recommendation of any one concentration--remains only rumor.

Harvard students have been required to graduate from concentrations since they were first introduced by President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877.


Even so, the phrase "general studies" and the shadow non-concentration it conjures have managed to survive long after the faculty interred any general knowledge undergraduate program.

According to the student handbook, "All degree candidates must fulfill the requirements of one of the recognized fields of concentration, an approved joint concentration, or an approved special concentration."

The requirements for graduation are simple, says William M. Todd, dean for undergraduate education, who calls this hunt for General Studies a " waste of time."

However, there is still an option for seniors struggling with their final requirements to graduate from the College--even in honors-only concentrations.

In extreme circumstances--most often failure to complete a thesis--seniors can graduate from honors-only concentrations without honors recommendations.

Seniors who write unsatisfactory theses or do badly on requisite oral or general examinations also graduate from their concentration without honors.

"I understand that if somebody can't complete the honors requirements, we can't recommend them to graduate with honors," says Bridie L. Andrews, head tutor for honors-only History and Science. "Under those circumstances, we recommend them with no honors."

This little known paradox is relatively rare, but students graduate every year from honors concentrations without concentration honors.

For instance, according to the Fields of Concentration handbook, last year four students graduated without being recommended for honors by their concentration from Applied Mathematics, one from History and Literature and two from Visual and Environmental Studies.

"We require a thesis and expect every student to complete a thesis, but if a student hasn't fulfilled that requirement, we recommend them without honors," says Sandra Naddaff '75, director of undergraduate studies in the honors-only Literature concentration.

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