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Gen Ed Must Go

The General Education requirement in Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding is meant to develop “the ability to interpret forms of cultural expression,” and any one of the department of Romance Languages and Literatures’ excellent courses in Spanish literature does just that. It is nonsense, then, that a concentrator or secondary field recipient in Romance Languages and Literatures would be unable to satisfy his or her Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding education requirement without venturing outside of the RLL department.

Yet not a single Spanish literature course fulfills the AIU Gen Ed category (or, indeed, any other General Education requirement), nor can students petition to receive General Education credit for a course, as was possible under the previous Core Program. The Core Program, itself notoriously burdensome, at least exempted students from requirements that were part and parcel with their concentrations, but the Gen Ed program permits no such maneuvering. Instead, the student of Spanish literature will have to use one of his or her 32 precious course slots on one of a small, arbitrarily selected pool (just 20 of this semester’s courses satisfy the AIU requirement) of approved General Education courses. These courses are often taken by uninterested students in need of a Gen Ed credit. A large number of uninterested students concentrated in a small number of courses, predictably, results in intellectual disaster. The Program in General Education, aiming to cultivate intellectual curiosity, effectively accomplishes precisely the opposite.

I considered concentrating in Spanish, but when I realized how little flexibility the Gen Ed system would leave in my schedule, I decided against it. This demonstrates yet another flaw in the Program in General Education: Undergraduates are compelled to populate their schedules with courses that they have to take rather than ones that interest them. I often find myself browsing courses in departments that I have never explored but would very much like to explore. “Do they satisfy a Gen Ed?,” I ask myself. More often than not, the answer is no, and I instead choose to enroll in a Gen Ed for fear of neglecting my burdensome requirements.

Moreover, the philosophy of the Program in General Education is inconsistent with the aims of a liberal education. The program promises to “link the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face,” and it hopes to do so by applying “ basic [academic] concepts and principles to the solution of concrete problems.” Yet the philosophy of a liberal education maintains that the liberal arts are valuable in and of themselves, that a liberal education necessarily makes us better citizens, and that to justify an education with external criteria is to devalue and misrepresent the aims of scholarship. We need not introduce additional, cumbersome material to liberal arts courses to ensure that they will benefit us as thinkers and as citizens. Nor should we water down the liberal arts with unnecessarily defensive, self-defeating criteria. It is downright shameful that Harvard, one of the world’s premier liberal arts colleges, has flouted this basic principle of education.

Because of the inflexibility of the Gen Ed system, instructors are required to design their courses to accommodate the guidelines of the program.  The system, which asks that instructors petition to have their courses satisfy General Education requirements, gets it backward.  Rather, faculty should not be asked to make their material adhere to rigid and often irrelevant criteria; courses should be determined to fulfill the requirements of undergraduates on an ad hoc basis.

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The College should do away with a system that does a disservice to both undergraduates and faculty by replacing General Education with general education. Harvard should instate a general education program similar to Yale’s: two courses each in the humanities and arts, social sciences, sciences, and no nonsense. Until such a change is made, faculty can help mitigate some of the negative effects of Gen Ed by petitioning, to the greatest extent possible, to include their courses in the Gen Ed curriculum. This will ensure the greatest possible flexibility for both undergraduates and professors. The Committee on General Education should also consider actively reviewing all courses for Gen Ed credit rather than asking that faculty take the initiative. Finally, the Committee should permit undergraduates  more lenience in petitioning to receive Gen Ed credit for courses not yet included in the program.

With its senselessly rigid criteria the Program in General Education betrays the aims of the liberal arts. Harvard bears the responsibility of reforming a system that is as logistically problematic as it is frustratingly anti-intellectual.

Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.

Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.

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