I read with mixed sympathy and frustration your editorials on Gen Ed and the Core (“Whither is the Faculty’s passion?” and “And What About Us?”, editorial, Sept. 19). Two years ago I introduced a sequence of two Freshman Seminars modeled on the year-long Literature Humanities core course taught at Columbia University. I am not alone. My department Chair, who teaches some very dynamic and successful Cores, also teaches the Columbia “Contemporary Civilization” sequence for the Extension School.
The assumption in the case of my two seminars was that the first term was foundation for the second; but since a seminar cannot be a year course without a vote of the Faculty, there was considerable turnover.
Typically freshmen were pressured by their advisers not to take two seminars lest concentration requirements be neglected. The head of the Freshman Seminar program herself offered such advice to one of my students: Though she undoubtedly believed she had his interests in mind, her counsel of course undermined the integrity and continuity of my own efforts. The Freshman Seminar committee suggested, indeed, that I approach the new Humanities program, but the latter replied last spring that no new courses were welcome and the faculty had not yet decided anything about the future.
When I came to Harvard, back in 1993, a committee was preparing a long-awaited report on the Core. It concluded that everybody liked the program and was satisfied with it, though in the minds of everybody I knew this was fiction. I wrote to the committee chair with the observation that the document reminded me of the way the East German regime once cut a bridge to West Berlin in half and went on to name it the Brücke der Einheit, “Bridge of Unity”.
As a faculty member who does care about general education (I’m teaching a Freshman Seminar this fall and a House Seminar in the spring), I feel that my efforts are not only not rewarded in any way but also actually discouraged. It is as unfair to make a blanket accusation of apathy against the faculty as it would be to accuse the student body of laziness and conformism because large numbers take guts or popular courses. Instead, I suggest concerned students and faculty unite to agree upon and promote a common vision of general education for Harvard’s future. Now let’s see whether anybody steps forward to help break down this academic Berlin Wall.
JAMES R. RUSSELL
September 19, 2007
The writer is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies.