A New Age of Old School

Relate the school to life,” wrote educational philosopher John Dewey in 1907, “and all studies are of necessity correlated.” In
By Kimberly E. Gittleson

Relate the school to life,” wrote educational philosopher John Dewey in 1907, “and all studies are of necessity correlated.”

In 2006, the Harvard Task Force on General Education, a small committee chosen to rethink last year’s General Education proposal regarding the Core curriculum, wrote on page four of their preliminary report, “General education is the place where students are brought to understand how everything that we teach in the liberal arts and sciences relates to their lives.”

While no Opal Mehta, the 2006 General Education (Gen Ed) proposal seems to unintentionally draw from the ideas of American educational writings in its attempt to reconnect a college education with a post-college life. The report suggests that it is time to take learning out of a vacuum, an idea that’s almost 100 years in the (re-)making.


While the new proposal explicitly references the influence of interim University President Derek C. Bok’s “Our Underachieving Colleges” and 2006’s “Excellence Without A Soul: How A Great University Forgot Education”—an expose by former dean of the College and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis ’68—the report also echoes the pragmatic educational ideals that John Dewey sought at the turn of the twentieth century.

Dewey believed that teaching students the relationship between academic texts and their own experience would lead them to be better citizens, and he emphasized the relationship between experiential learning and participation in a community.

“By wisdom,” he wrote, “we mean not systematic and proved knowledge of fact and truth, but a conviction about moral values, a sense for the better kind of life to be led.” According to Dewey, knowledge was meant to give students the tools to understand themselves and their societies so that they could live active, engaged lives.

The new Gen Ed proposal, which includes an “Ethical Life” distribution requirement, attempts to bring philosophy into practice. Even more boldly, the report calls for an “initiative in activity-based learning” to be implemented in the future. A striking similarity to Dewey’s plan.

Committee Co-Chair and Professor of Philosophy Alison Simmons does not believe that these echoes of Dewey were intentional. “I don’t believe that Dewey...[was] ever mentioned in our discussions,” she writes in an e-mail.

Other committee members agree. “No one brought up historical references,” Zukerman Professor of Sociology Mary C. Waters writes in an e-mail. “We were pretty focused on life after college.”

Yet it is precisely this focus on relating the post-college careers of students and their current educational experiences that echoes the philosopher’s works.

“It’s a very Dewey-ite proposal, to be sure,” says Committee Co-Chair and Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language Louis Menand.


Another historical document that bears some resemblance to the Gen Ed proposal is the infamous 1945 report, “General Education in a Free Society,” written by former University President James B. Conant ’14, otherwise known as the Red Book.

The Red Book, which addressed what college should be like in the post-WWII world, advocated a so-called “great books” curriculum that would equip students with the tools they needed to engage fully in a meritocratic society.

While the new Gen Ed proposal eschews anything even remotely like a core set of knowledge, its goals are similar to those of the Red Book’s. “Harvard should seek...to inspire its students to become active and engaged citizens” reads the report. This is a citizenship based on the post-9/11—not post-Pear Harbor—world situation that necessitates an understanding of American culture, foreign cultures, and religions.

“I think both the Red Book and our report are both kind of efforts to look outside the college to what the world’s like that students will confront,” says Menand. “I think we kind of think of ourselves as going back to the great mother document which was the Red Book.”


Usually the members on education committees at Harvard are experts in their fields—anthropology, analytic philosophy, biochemistry—but not in educational philosophy. This time around, though, both of the chairs of this committee have backgrounds in philosophy and educational history.

A long-time advocate for a more dynamic, experience-centered educational pedagogy, Menand has published widely on the subject of education. In “Re-imagining Liberal Education.” Menand questions the very definition of what it means to be liberally educated.

When asked about the parallels between his educational writings and the new report, Menand acknowledges the similarities but is quick to note that these goals were agreed upon by the committee independent of his writing.

Other professors echo his sentiment. “We started from first principles—thinking about the purposes of General Education and the goals that would help achieve them,” Lindsley Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn writes in an e-mail. “This was very much a group effort, and I don’t think Luke had more input on the purposes and goals of the proposed program than anybody else on the committee.”

It is perhaps too easy to pin specific aspects of the report on Menand. After all, he is, along with Simmons, one of the members of the committee whose academic and non-academic work is more directly involved in educational policy. However, Menand claims no superiority.

“I just have a normal historian’s interest in it [educational policy]” says Menand. “It’s fun given what I know as a historian...to be on this committee and see what the next phase is going to look like.”


While all of these parallels are intriguing and shed new light on the educational possibilities of the report, none of these things—Dewey, the Red Book, or professorial writings—were consciously used in the drafting of the report. Instead, the ideas came from the committee itself.

“We came quickly to agreement on the basic philosophy and rationale in our very first meeting early in the summer,” Ford Professor of Human Evolution David Pilbeam writes in an e-mail, “with no mention of the [Red Book] or educational philosophies.”

Whether the report was influenced by philosophy or personal experience, it attempts, like its unintentional predecessors, to connect book-learnin’ with reality. Like the educational philosophers of the past, the report emphasizes the importance of education in helping students to understand the world. And that’s only the beginning.

“That’s one thing that’s really exciting about learning is to see that it’s very ad hoc where you start,” says Menand. “But from where you start, the whole world will come into view, if you know where to follow it and let you’re imagination go free with it.”