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An Autopsy of General Education

Deemed “failing on a variety of fronts,” Harvard College’s core curriculum was doomed to start

By Nadia X. Haile
By Karl M. Aspelund, Crimson Staff Writer

As members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences filed into University Hall’s Faculty Room in May to discuss a critical report on the College’s General Education program at their last meeting of the year, most were unsurprised to hear that the core curriculum of the one of the world’s leading colleges was “failing on a variety of fronts.”

The program suffers from a lack of identity; includes courses that are often too large and indistinguishable from their departmental counterparts; and faces difficulties in preparing teaching fellows to instruct its courses effectively, according to the committee charged with reviewing it. Notably blunt, the report listed many “misgivings” about the program from faculty and students.

Faculty members who came to discuss the program, which generally constitutes a quarter of students’ undergraduate course loads, were prepared with remarks. Some expounded upon the philosophy of General Education; others listed the dangers of distribution requirements and including departmental courses in the curriculum. Still others voiced frustration with what they described as serious problems with an endeavor that had been billed as Harvard’s academic cornerstone and spanned years of contentious debate.

It was clear by the end of the meeting that the Faculty has months more of debate ahead. But tellingly, those most involved with the program, from instructors to administrators, expressed no surprise with any of the report’s findings.

Looking back, they say, Gen Ed seemed doomed to its fate, a victim of the administrative and financial uncertainty that gripped Harvard during its implementation. Yet beyond that, some of the program’s woes are manifestations of structural problems within Harvard’s system of undergraduate education, suffering from many of the same problems it was intended to fix.


Despite nearly four years of deliberation, a working group, a committee, and a task force, the very problems that the designers of the Gen Ed program intended to allay are the ones plaguing it today.

From the beginning, the Program in General Education was intended to be the cornerstone of a renewed undergraduate educational experience at Harvard College, the goal of the curricular review championed by former University President Lawrence H. Summers and former FAS Dean William C. Kirby. They set out to modernize Harvard’s undergraduate education, targeting among many other things the College’s version of Gen Ed at the time, the Core, which was crafted under then-University President Derek C. Bok and his FAS Dean, Henry Rosovsky, nearly three-decades prior.

The Core “failed to respect the many changes in knowledge that had taken place since its establishment in the 1970s,” Summers said in an interview last week. In April 2004, committee work and faculty discussion resulted in a 67-page review of the Core, which in turn launched further committees, conversations, and reports on how to replace the aging framework.

But more than 11 years later, many of the same problems have reappeared in the Core’s replacement. Reports on both programs found that the criteria for approving courses is opaque; the programs’ missions are unclear to both faculty and students; it channels students into large courses; and the courses are often too easy. Instead, undergraduates should take courses that are broader and more foundational, both groups recommended.

Yet despite the similarities in problems between the two systems, administrators worked extensively to improve on the design of the Core before launching the Gen Ed program. A Committee on General Education of about two dozen members, chaired by Kirby and Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 and featuring Summers, for a time, as an ex-officio member, was organized to craft a more concrete proposal in 2004.

That group’s large size was a detriment, English professor Louis Menand said, who sat on the committee, which met weekly in the fall of 2004. He likened the committee’s work to “herding cats” because of its size. Eventually, a smaller group of five professors crafted the final report that they presented to the Faculty in November 2005.

The final Curricular Renewal report—a 131-page and legacy-defining creation for Summers and Kirby, according to faculty members—was released in January 2006. It included the findings of the committee.

“All we could come up with was distribution requirements,” Menand said. That proposed program would require students to complete courses spread over three subject areas: arts and humanities, the study of societies, and science and technology.

Yet despite the preparatory work, this recommendation was not ultimately approved by the full Faculty, who criticized it for lacking a guiding vision and generating little enthusiasm for the new program. Coupled with a crippling financial crisis and major administrative turnover, Gen Ed was off to a slow start.


Shortly after the Curricular Renewal report was released, Kirby announced his resignation amid a deeply divided administration. Weeks after that, facing sharp faculty criticism, Summers announced that he, too, would be leaving his post. And with that, the men who spearheaded the creation of Gen Ed ended their primary administrative ties, leaving the program in a lurch.

Psychology professor Steven Pinker, who sat on the Gen Ed Committee of 2004 and 2005, attributed the its lackluster final product not to size but to the lack of leadership from Summers as his relationship with the Faculty deteriorated throughout 2005.

"The process was leaderless," said Psychology professor Steven Pinker.

“The process was leaderless,” Pinker wrote in an email, “and a committee of any size that embraced both postmodernists and scientists was bound to come up with a bland common denominator that no one could get excited about and everyone saw as fair game for horse-trading and pork-barreling.”

Thus, while the idea for the Gen Ed program initially formed under Summers’s administration, legislation detailing the curriculum’s specifics came under two interim administrators, Bok—who returned for a brief stint as University president in July 2006—and Jeremy R. Knowles, who took over temporarily as FAS dean.

In the first weeks of their tenure, a task force was created in response to the lack of faculty enthusiasm for the original proposal and the delays caused by the administrative chaos of the previous six months. Menand and Philosophy professor Alison Simmons, also on the previous committee, led the small task force as it crafted the new proposal under the interim administration.

The group released its final proposal in early 2007, and after the efforts of several groups, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences officially approved the new Program in General Education in May.

But just two months later, a new administration took over when Drew G. Faust began her tenure as University president and Michael D. Smith stepped in as the next FAS dean, leaving the program in their hands to bring from paper into classrooms around Harvard Yard.

In the span of three years, Gen Ed had become one administration’s to contemplate, another’s to legislate, and yet another’s to implement—a crippling combination.

“A little bit of the difficulty was that the people who had to administer the program didn’t own it,” Menand said, “and I think that’s probably understandable.”

“I don’t think Drew Faust could come in with the authority in this particular area that could let her say, ‘This is how we’re going to do it; this is how it would make sense,’” said History professor Charles S. Maier ’60, who sat on the 2004-2005 Gen Ed Committee and is a former Crimson editorial chair. “This clearly was Larry’s.”

"It was partly because we had been saying that the core is dead for eight years, and the undergraduates deserved to have something new," said Stephanie H. Kenen, the administrative director of Gen Ed.

The newly-minted Standing Committee on General Education was charged with implementing a new program in one year, a rapid transition, according to Stephanie H. Kenen, administrative director of the Gen Ed program.

“It was partly because we had been saying that the Core is dead for eight years, and the undergraduates deserved to have something new,” she said, adding that the “excitement” of getting the large reform underway also played a role, although she would have liked some more time.

After six years, three presidents and FAS deans, and hundreds of pages of reports, the Gen Ed program launched in the fall of 2009. But the program’s obstacles had not ended with administrative turnover as that transition was matched by another event that roiled the University: the financial crisis.


The biggest change to the undergraduate curriculum in three decades came just as the University’s endowment suffered its biggest loss ever, undercutting Gen Ed right from the start. As the endowment plummeted, Smith declared a FAS-wide hiring freeze in November 2008 and that spring announced an extensive list of cost-cutting measures to save $77 million in light of a projected deficit of $220 million.

Meanwhile, the first undergraduate class required to complete the Gen Ed program arrived on campus in September.

Philosophy professor Edward J. Hall, the current chair of the Gen Ed Committee, said the impact of the financial crisis siphoned off financial resources and administrative attention that a whole reform of undergraduate education necessitates.

“The administration’s attention was understandably on dealing with the financial crisis,” he said, “whereas at the time of a launch what you really want is an administration that has plenty of time in its schedule to be going around to departments” to make sure they are committed to helping the program.

What emerged was a Gen Ed program lacking the resources to provide faculty members the proper spaces and help to set up courses, Hall said.

Furthermore, faculty members did not gain a proper understanding of the principles of Gen Ed in designing their courses, and departmental courses—designed as introductions to more specialized thinking—ended up diluting the message of the overall program, faculty members said.

"In the context of reduced resources, there was a ready-to-wear Gen Ed if you shifted over some Core classes, which in practice is what happened," History professor Maya R. Jasanoff '96 said.

Forced to create a collection of courses quickly without much funding to assist faculty in crafting courses and graduate students in their teaching strategies, the committee preparing the program accepted many syllabi that were very similar to Core classes, even as they did not fit the goal of the new program to create spaces for more generalized learning.

“In the context of reduced resources, there was a ready-to-wear Gen Ed if you shifted over some Core classes, which in practice is what happened,” said History professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, who sits on the current Gen Ed review committee.

With administrative attention devoted elsewhere amid the financial crisis, the ambitious schedule to set up the cornerstone of a curricular reform of a past administration led to many of the same criticisms that Gen Ed was first designed to fix. The philosophy seemed unclear and the course selection arbitrary. And in the rush, the fundamental presence of the program, debated for years, was lost.


Although the administrative and financial circumstances of Gen Ed’s development hampered its capacity to succeed, faculty members emphasized that some shortcomings of the program are manifestations of larger issues in Harvard’s undergraduate education that FAS must address beyond Gen Ed.

“I think Gen Ed is a microcosm,” Kenen said. “I think it magnifies issues that are broader and longer-lasting.”

The teaching experience of graduate students, which has drawn extensive criticism over recent years, compounds and introduces issues within Gen Ed, with faculty attempting to alleviate problems in hiring TFs through the program.

Shaye J.D. Cohen, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, acknowledges that he tries to make his Gen Ed course, Culture and Belief 23: “From the Hebrew Bible to Judaism, From the Old Testament to Christianity,” as large as possible to ensure TF positions for his department’s graduate students. In departments like his with many graduate students but few undergraduates, it provides a way to reduce uncertainty for the TFs, he said.

As such, the issue of hiring graduate students in teaching capacities transcends Gen Ed but is acute there, Hall said, adding that in order to improve Gen Eds, administrators should think of strategies to address the uncertainty inherent in the TF experience, such as discussing pre-registration, section size caps, and other possible teaching responsibilities and teaching support for graduate students.

And while diversion of administrative attention was detrimental to the implementation of the program, getting undergraduates to understand and embrace the philosophy of Gen Ed has not been easy given Harvard’s sectionalized culture, according to program affiliates.

A successful Gen Ed program at Harvard should serve the role of broadening undergraduates’ education in that highly sectionalized culture, which is not necessarily the case at other schools, Menand said.

“We’re too specialized here, so you need something to pull them out of their specialization here,” Menand said. “The program has to work for your students and faculty and what you do well so that when students come here they think this is part of the Harvard experience.”

Indeed, undergraduates should be well aware from when they first consider applying to Harvard about the philosophy of Gen Ed and how it relates to their education when they arrive on campus, Jasanoff said.

Gen Ed’s lack of identity in the College emerged from this specialized academic culture, as faculty members and administrators have have failed to emphasize the benefits of understanding intellectual pursuits more generally in a liberal arts education, several program affiliates said.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana acknowledges the College administration’s responsibility in articulating Gen Ed’s role to undergraduates.

“One of the things that we have to do better is communicate the understanding of general education and a liberal arts and sciences education,” he said.


Amid the extensive criticism of the program, administrators and professors are intent on improving the Gen Ed program, though the path to success is anything but clear.

“[We will] be much more intentional in discussing liberal arts and sciences education earlier in our Harvard students’ careers,” Khurana said.

Administrators suggest that the attention to Gen Ed will grow as the faculty discusses its reforms. Program affiliates said they sense that courses will more closely reflect the principles of Gen Ed over time as faculty understand better how to implement the philosophy and new faculty members arrive and spend their whole teaching careers at Harvard under Gen Ed. Nevertheless, the debate about what will come out of a reformed program has barely begun.

The review report outlined some preliminary ideas and mentioned scrapping the program in favor of basic distribution requirements, although FAS affiliates say most of the Faculty is committed to reforming the program with the same philosophical principles of engaging with broader questions to understand the intellectual pursuit more broadly.

At the most recent Faculty meeting and since, faculty members and administrators have argued that making Gen Ed the centerpiece it was meant to be in Harvard undergraduate education will require administrative steps, Faculty legislation, and commitment to larger cultural changes.

Harvard, attracting international attention, has a responsibility to its undergraduates, faculty members say, and also to the many institutions that look to it to respond to longstanding issues that remain stubbornly prevalent in its undergraduate education.

And while not a specific line item within Harvard’s ongoing capital campaign, Smith said the quality of undergraduate education, including the Gen Ed program, appears in many sectors of the FAS campaign.

Faculty members and administrators assure that assessing General Education at Harvard is not a one-time event and barely once in a generation. Reassessing, especially if similar issues persist, is vital to ensure that undergraduate learning is appropriate for a preeminent university, they argue.

“I don’t know why any of us would be doing this if we didn’t think we could provide an undergraduate experience that could be meaningful,” Kenen said.

—Staff writer Karl M. Aspelund can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kma_crimson.

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