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The Meta-Electives Club

What the pragmatists might have thought about general education at the College

By Sahil K. Mahtani

Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language Louis Menand may be a scholar of pragmatism, but the General Education Task Force he is co-chairing is entirely dogmatic. The preliminary report that the task force released last month refuses to engage with the big questions surrounding general education at Harvard College.

Its conclusion: more of the same. Students must know certain agreed-upon things before they can graduate. Professors are to decide this, and the program must be free enough to allow a certain degree of choice.

The trouble is that Harvard does not need another one-size-fits-all general education policy. A system devoid of incentives for professors or students cannot, despite its promises, produce better scholars, citizens, or people.

Few people seem to have picked up on this conservatism. Most of the current debate is not one of broad reconfigurations but of petty technicalities. Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker has too much faith in science’s divinity to risk exposing students to a “Reason and Faith” requirement. Maier Professor of Political Economy Benjamin M. Friedman ’66 acts predictably—though not irrationally of course—when he demands more stature in the curriculum for the poor, scorned, and maligned discipline of economics. Professor of Biology and of Geology Charles R. Marshall, who teaches Science B-57, “Dinosaurs and Their Relatives,” seems to think, in a stunning burst of self-delusion, that his class is actually relevant.

They are all like enthusiastic maids at a bazaar, who, having discovered the terrible joy of haggling, have forgotten that they must go back home to feed the children. In the process, the big questions have been left unanswered. Not only would the pragmatists have been more rigorous in their assessments, but one suspects they would have disagreed with the answers that Menand’s committee gave.

To see this, all you have to do is walk up Massachusetts Avenue. There is a time in the early 1870s, when on one side of Mass. Ave. lay Mass. Hall—then occupied by the newly-instated University President Charles W. Eliot, class of 1853—and on the other side, according to History Professor Donald L. Fleming, was the famed Metaphysical Club of the Cambridge pragmatist thinkers at Chauncey Wright’s apartment at College House.

Both Eliot and the pragmatists were, broadly, students of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Class of 1821. What they inherited from him was what Menand terms the “disestablishmentarian impulse”: the distrust of all fixities, the crusade against all institutions and orthodoxies.

Eliot put this directly into practice when he abolished most of the requirements for undergraduates. Emerson, as usual, put it best when he praised Eliot for resisting the one-size-fits-all policy: “there is always the temptation in large schools to omit the endless task of meeting the wants of each single mind…to expedite…to do for masses what cannot be done for masses, what must be done reverently, one by one…”

It is a temptation to which Harvard has repeatedly succumbed and indeed, this is exactly the mistake the new Core makes. Instead of seeing intelligent students as individuals who are best off formulating their own ideas and questions, it treats them as vessels to be stuffed with a certain body of knowledge before they leave. The Core is terrified of the genius of, say, the black girl from a predominantly black community who comes here to study race, concentrates in African-American Studies, and only participates in black student groups. According to the curriculum today, this is unacceptable; do please dilly dally a while, Harvard student, if you would, in something less important.

Emerson would have been thrilled to find a mind so conscious and passionate of its purpose. He would have hated the Core because it compromises genius while compensating mediocrity. Emerson had even made the very unorthodox argument that vocational training could count as a liberal arts education, simply because “education should be as broad as man.”

The philosopher Charles S. Peirce, Class of 1859, too, would have agreed, though for different reasons. For him, education was not about swallowing little bits and pieces of the world. Knowledge advanced through dialectic, not digestion: “Each mind reflects differently…and…reality doesn’t stand still long enough to be accurately mirrored. Peirce’s conclusion was that knowledge must therefore be social.” Menand certainly knew this. I’m quoting his characterization of Peirce.

Not only would the pragmatists have thought the Core unnecessary, but they would have noticed that it did not actually work, even by its own terms. When Eliot implemented his elective system, one of the arguments he made was a pragmatic one, that it was foolish to push the student “into studies for which he has no capacity and in which he feels no interest.” Were Eliot still alive today, he might have said, ditto the professors.

Any system of general education at Harvard is curtailed by limited incentives. Professors tend to research, and students tend towards those activities which emphasize relevance and applicability. Put both in a room and every class is like the eternal recurrence of an awkward first date. I put before you Mahtani’s Law of General Education: “Any Core class, keeping the same professors, syllabus, and TF, would be better if formulated as a non-Core class.”

The obvious solution is to allow students to create their own educational plans. Yes there will be some abuse, as there was in Eliot’s day, but as Eliot put it, “I care no[t]… for the young men who have no capacity for an intellectual life.” Such people will always exist, and barring a change in the current pool of students, there will always be slack students. But even abuse is likely to be far less than the kind in Eliot’s day. For one thing, we have better students; meritocracy has ensured this. For another, we have mitigating factors, like the concentration system which developed after Eliot, to ensure that students maintain a degree of academic expertise. The goal, as Eliot put it, was to ignore what he called “the stupid sons of the rich” and focus on the people who might actually benefit from the use of free will.

Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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