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Social Science Profs Question Gen Ed

By Madeline M.G. Haas, Crimson Staff Writer

While goodwill prevailed toward the General Education report at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, members of some departments are still calling for tweaks to the first overhaul of general education in 30 years.

Prominent members of the history and economics departments have expressed concerns about the place of their disciplines in the new curriculum, fearing that their subjects do not fall neatly into any of the categories.

Given the proposed curriculum’s divisions, “The social sciences generally, as well as the study of the past, are the two areas that don’t fit so automatically anywhere,” said Andrew D. Gordon ’74, the chair of the history department.


With the new curriculum subdivided according to a different philosophy emphasizing the real-world applications of academics, disciplines that were once isolated are being brought together.

As a result, history and economics courses, which are separated into Historical Studies and Social Analysis in the current Core Curriculum, would fit into the same categories in the proposed general education structure.

Given the ambiguity regarding history’s place in the new curriculum, Gordon said he plans to introduce an amendment to the report at the next Faculty meeting on March 13. It would require that at least one of a student’s eight general education courses deal with the past.

With the current proposal, which could face an initial faculty vote as early as next month, “historical illiteracy will be allowed, even if clearly frowned upon,” Gordon said in prepared comments for this past Tuesday’s Faculty meeting.

Meanwhile, proponents of the new plan insist it would actually give departments more sway in how general education courses are chosen, and say that more departmental courses would count for general education credit.

Professor of Philosophy Alison Simmons, who co-chaired the task force that drafted the proposal, also said that the strength of the new curriculum would lie in its interdisciplinary focus.

“The report organizes the curriculum around subjects rather than disciplines with the intention that a variety of disciplines (and so disciplinary methodologies) would be represented under them,” Simmons wrote in an e-mail.

Historians said they would be bracing for fewer students taking their courses if the proposed general education plan is implemented.

“We will lose some students who were in a sense being required to take history courses,” Charles S. Maier ’60, the Saltonstall professor of history, said. He stressed that he was comfortable with losing some students who do not actually want to study history.

But many historians said they held deeper motives than simply protecting their department, noting that a failure to study the past would conflict with the mission of general education.

“I think that students wouldn’t consider themselves educated if they only studied their own time period,” said historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the 300th Anniversary University Professor.

She added that while at least half of the eight general education categories could be home to courses about the past, the history department’s role in the proposed curriculum was still unclear.

“I just remain puzzled about the categories,” she said. “I think it’s something that’s going to get worked out in practice.”

The proposed categories that could include history-related courses are “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding,” “Culture and Belief,” “Ethical Reasoning,” “Societies of the World,” and “The United States in the World.”


While some historians fear that students will choose economics over history if both are counted toward the same requirements, the place of economics in the proposed curriculum is also unclear.

“There’s the question of where Social Analysis 10 will fit,” said Olshan Professor of Economics John Y. Campbell, referring to the popular introductory economics course also known as Ec 10. “It can be placed within the ‘U.S. and the World,’ and that I believe to be the intention [of the proposed curriculum]. But it isn’t the most accurate way to describe what Ec 10 is trying to do.”

Members of the general education committee did not correct Economics Department Chair James H. Stock when he said at the Faculty meeting that he understood that Ec 10 would be guaranteed a place in one of the new required categories. But the authors of the report have refused to say publicly whether specific courses will be included.

“Certainly I would hope and expect that major, entry-level courses in economics would be among the options available,” Stock wrote in an e-mail.

Economists also expressed general concern that their discipline does not fit neatly into the proposed subject areas.

“Societies of the World” and “U.S. in the World” are the two categories most likely to accommodate economics courses.

“Both [areas] place a great stress on the differences across societies. It’s not clear to most economists how our discipline fits into that,” Campbell said. “The subject of economics is not meant to be chopped up according to different societies.”

—Staff writer Madeline M.G. Haas can be reached at

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