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Editorials

Improve General Education

The Program in General Education is a missed opportunity

By The Crimson Staff

When the current system of General Education classes was put in place, the faculty envisioned courses that accomplished four broad goals: “to prepare students for civic engagement; to teach students to understand themselves as products of, and participants in, traditions of art, ideas, and values; to enable students to respond critically and constructively to change; and to develop students’ understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do.”

Those goals are worthy and essential to a liberal arts education, and a framework of requirements is a necessary tool to engage students in fields they have not encountered before. But the Program in General Education is failing to achieve its aims because the courses being offered fall far short of their potential.

At their best, Gen Ed classes are among the most liked in the College. Of the 132 courses taught this semester that qualify for a Gen Ed requirement, 45 are rated 4 or higher in the Q Guide. At their worst, Gen Ed classes are laughably easy. Many of the current courses fail to achieve the faculty’s vision of classes “taught in a distinctive way and in the service of distinctive goals.” In many Gen Ed classes, it is impossible to see any organizational or pedagogical difference from a class that might be offered within a specific department. Some Gen Ed classes, especially ones known to be easy, are incredibly large. The quality of teaching and teaching fellows suffers perceptibly. These large courses dwarf the smaller, more personal ones.

Gen Ed can be so much more than it is today. The program is fortunate to draw professors from multiple departments or even schools to teach classes. These courses are an opportunity to encourage interdisciplinary thinking that is otherwise hard to achieve within the silos of individual departments. University President Drew G. Faust Faust told the University on Tuesday that “many of the most important and intriguing questions in the world transcend any single discipline or field.” At the undergraduate level, the Gen Ed program is an excellent framework to explore those questions.

Some Gen Ed classes are already on their way to doing this. The two professors who teach Science of the Physical Universe 27: “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science” have gone out of their way to introduce students to physics and chemistry by applying it to food, a field that is traditionally thought of separately but is actually very much related. The value of courses like Science and Cooking is not so much in teaching students about science or cooking but in giving students a roadmap for thinking about many different ways to approach a problem. That type of learning is exactly what Gen Ed classes should encourage.

The goals of Gen Ed are good, but the implementation is very much a work in progress.

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