Look at Methods, Not Content

In the three years since I graduated, I’ve thought at length about the strengths and weaknesses of Harvard’s general education program. As the College announced its reevaluation of the Core, I had hoped such weaknesses would be addressed in the Task Force on General Education’s final report. But the report was sorely disappointing, as it failed to address the greatest shortcoming of the Core: pedagogical methodology, not simply content.

The General Education Report concludes that the problem with the Core lies in its stated purpose, and so the report recommends swapping it out for a new one, replacing the old “ways of knowing” with a new imperative to teach undergraduates how the “arts and sciences relates to their lives and to the world that they will confront.” The report goes on to note, “Since 1945 the Harvard Faculty has believed in the importance of taking a stand on the question of what students need to learn.”

When I reflect on the Core classes that dot my transcript, the problem as I see it had little to do with what I was learning, and everything to do with how it was taught, an error of method, not of content. In this light, the Task Force’s report seems too erudite and abstract for the dilemma at hand, like trying to fix a broken down car with a new theory of locomotion. The proposed shift from “ways of knowing” to “real-world context” will do little to address the Core’s real problem, which is that it promotes an atomized, individualistic type of learning while rarely encouraging undergraduates to take a meaningful role in each other’s educations.

The basic methods of a Core class seem to have learned nothing from the innovative progress of education during the past century. Students attend lecture, read at night, write papers, and take final exams—each practice remains as solitary as it is antiquated. Students attend section for an hour a week and always have the opportunity to talk about classes in the dining hall or the dorm room, but the social dimension of learning is almost entirely extrinsic to the practice and principles of a Core education.

This idea that students can be valuable inputs in each other’s learning traces its origins, most influentially, back to John Dewey. Dewey, writing at the turn of the 19th century, argued that “apart from the thought of participation in social life, the school has no end or aim.” Furthermore, he wrote that the social context of an education should be evident in “both the methods and subject-matter of instruction,” that the two should be consistent and mutually reinforcing. This was as much a practical position as a philosophical one, deriving from both Dewey’s work as a scholar and from his experience as a teacher. He believed deeply in the social creation and function of knowledge, but he also believed something more pedestrian and empirical, that human beings simply learn best when they learn together.

The evolution of elementary and secondary schools in America over the last century largely reflects the influence of Dewey’s ideas. Schools, particularly in the lower grades, have moved steadily away from a hub-and-spoke model of education, where the only significant relationship in a classroom is between the teacher and each individual student. Today primary and secondary students participate far more actively in each other’s educations, working in small groups and holding discussions while the teacher acts as a facilitator in addition to the traditional role of direct instructor.

In the same time span that primary education has evolved, it is a stunning fact that the methods of higher education have hardly changed at all. While elementary and secondary education have benefited from progressive ideas of alternative learning, group work, and hands-on activity, higher education has retained an unfortunate commitment to antiquated Puritan themes of individual contemplation and work in isolation—both of which characterize the academic experience of the Core, the hours spent alone in the library, alone writing a paper, alone taking notes in a crowded lecture hall.

When universities update their pedagogy, they almost always focus on content, not methods, just as the Task Force on General Education did with its final report. The real difference between past curccicula and today is in the things we learn, the replacement of theology with science and skepticism, and so on down the line. Yet even as the content of a liberal arts education has changed dramatically, there has been little effort to modernize methods accordingly.

It is a telling truism about undergraduate life at Harvard that we learn more from our fellow students than we do in class. It certainly describes my experience, particularly when assessed against the classes I took in the Core. However, it is not simply that peer learning often trumps academic learning, but that the two so frequently exist in entirely separate spheres. A truly revitalized undergraduate education would adopt methods that more strongly involve undergraduates as collaborators in each other’s educations; to this end, the Task Force on General Education’s final report should mark the start of a larger conversation about how Harvard can ensure that its teaching methods are every bit as enlightened as the canon of knowledge it endorses.

Kevin Hartnett ’03 was a social studies concentrator in Cabot House.