Broaden the Gen Ed Requirements

The introductory ethics course offered this fall in the philosophy department—Philosophy 13: Morality and its Critics—does not fulfill the General Education requirement for Ethical Reasoning. Let that sink in for a moment. An introductory course in ethics does not constitute a course in ethical reasoning.

How can this be?

As most students would agree, the Gen Ed program is an imperfect system that needs some reform. Its worst critics contend that the courses are too large, the selection too narrow, and the content watered down. While I don’t hold such negative opinions, I do believe that the program often feels more a burden and inconvenience than a rewarding means to a well-rounded education. The problem boils down to too few courses satisfying requirements—counting Philosophy 13 and other sensible courses will be a helpful step in remedying a flawed system.

The overarching philosophy of the General Education accords well with a liberal arts education. As former Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, once said, “A well-educated man must know a little bit of everything and one thing well.” A holistic educational experience necessitates that students be exposed to a variety of subjects. Further, students should leave Harvard as better informed and prepared citizens, with the ability to respond critically to change, to understand the ethical consequences of their actions, and to  “understand themselves as products of, and participants in, traditions of art, ideas, and value.”

However, the General Education program becomes flawed as a result of attempting to differentiate itself from mere distributional requirements. In valuing courses that it deems applicable for students beyond graduation, the program ends up severely restricting which courses satisfy the requirements. The application process—in which faculty members must submit proposals in order for their courses to count—also narrows the Gen Ed course offerings.


Instead, the program should allow its goals to emanate naturally from the courses.

A liberal arts curriculum has intrinsic value: Students become better thinkers and citizens by taking well-taught courses in a broad range of subjects. There’s no need to impose additional criteria on how a course should specifically teach us these things. A course that teaches Socrates’ theory on the unity of the virtues should tangentially, though certainly not explicitly, help inform students’ abilities to understand ethical problems in their lives. (This course, Philosophy 101, also does not count towards Ethical Reasoning.)

In limiting what courses count towards the requirements, the General Education program effectively funnels students into overly large courses, which dilutes course quality. It gives students fewer options and often forces them to take courses just to fill requirements.

My suggestion is simple: Harvard should broaden what counts for General Education requirements. The primary objective of the General Education program should be to have students engage with material from different disciplines and for students to take away important life skills. Most Harvard courses fall under one of the current eight Gen Ed categories. They should be counted as such.

There’s no reason why almost every English class should not count for Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding; Economics 1010 should count towards United States and the World, most sociology courses should count towards Societies in the World, and so on.

While this broad expansion shifts the program towards a more distributional system, it better achieves the worthy goals of General Education and has many benefits. Larger courses will become smaller, and students will have more choice when selecting courses. Also important, if Harvard allows more departmental courses to count, students will have the ability to delve into the different departments directly.

This change certainly has implications that need to be worked out, such as whether specific departments can handle larger enrollments. However, it would not be such a radical upheaval: Current courses in the Gen Ed would remain as they are. The additional courses that count towards requirements would serve to supplement them.

At the end of the spring semester, a committee of 10 faculty members will release a review of the General Education Program, the first review of its kind since the program’s inception in 2007. Gen Ed reform needs to take place, and broadening what courses counts towards requirements is a good place to begin.

James F. Kelleher Jr. ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.