For Gen Ed Committee, Debate But Few Results

Committee’s internal documents show extensive effort, disagreements that are scarcely reflected in vague report

Following the chilly reception of last year’s interim report for the Harvard College Curricular Review, many had high hopes that this year’s Committee on General Education would produce a bold and conclusive statement, laying to rest fears that the review had been derailed.

Instead, after some of Harvard’s top faculty and student minds produced hundreds of pages of ambitious proposals, the committee’s work resulted in a nine-page “Draft Final Report” that even committee members recognize is far from final.

This report, which was never widely distributed after facing strong censure from early readers, largely failed to provide a clear definition of the Harvard College Courses proposed in an earlier stage of the review and lacked strong justification for its recommendations.

In the face of faculty criticism, some committee members say that the report simply fails to convey the progress that has been made, but others are less confident that the committee has determined its vision for general education at Harvard.

“This working document we had called a final a sense conveyed the impression that we had it together and ready to go, when we didn’t and we don’t,” says Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier ’60, a committee member.


Judging from the committee’s internal documents reviewed by The Crimson, it is clear that there was no want of ideas or debate. But the final product is evidence of an inability to synthesize a year’s work into one coherent statement.

With the clock ticking, and other curricular review committees finishing up their work, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby has now decided to forgo full committee meetings and draft a more substantial report this summer with a select group of professors—a move that some say will make the process more efficient, but has upset other committee members who say they feel out of the loop.


Meeting every Tuesday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. on the third floor of the Science Center, the 16 voting members of the Committee on General Education—and ex officio members including Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 and University President Lawrence H. Summers—had a heavy burden on their shoulders.

They were charged with creating a new set of academic guidelines after last year’s review committees called for the abolition of the Core Curriculum, the centerpiece of Harvard’s educational philosophy for almost three decades.

Centered around “approaches to knowledge,” the current Core is a closed distribution system in which students must take one course in each of seven out of 11 areas. Last year’s committee suggested a set of more open-ended distribution requirements that could be fulfilled with departmental courses, as well as the creation of new Harvard College Courses that would take a broader interdisciplinary focus.

This year’s committee was left to assess these vague suggestions and turn them into a feasible curriculum.

Rather than focusing on specifics, the new committee began by reassessing the purpose of a general education.

“We haven’t made a lot of progress towards anything concrete,” Johnstone Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker—a member of the committee—told The Crimson in October. “We’re still discussing first principles; ‘What should an undergraduate know?’”

While this curricular review has sought to tackle a broader range of issues than previous reviews—addressing topics such as a possible January term and increased study abroad—there was still a sense that general education would form the cornerstone of this review, as it has in the past.

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