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Report Says Gen Ed Program Is 'Failing' on Many Fronts

By Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writer

A report reviewing the status of Harvard College’s Program in General Education states that the program is currently “failing” in many ways to achieve its initial goals, “occupies no place in the College’s identity,” and lacks general and financial commitment from both the College and University.

The report—compiled by a committee of seven professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences charged last year with reviewing the program—lists about two dozen grievances about the program, voiced by undergraduates, teaching fellows, administrators, and faculty members in the past year.

Based on interviews and town hall meetings with these constituencies over the past year, the review committee found that students generally do not have a clear sense of the purpose of the program, and that students report not taking their Gen Ed courses as seriously as they do other courses. Students who attended town hall meetings last fall expressed confusion over the program's philosophy and their desires to have more rigorous Gen Ed courses.

“It is disturbing to discover, therefore, that despite strengths, and serious efforts by many constituents, the Program is failing on a variety of fronts,” says the report, which Philosophy professor Sean D. Kelly will present at the FAS Faculty meeting on Tuesday for discussion and was obtained by The Crimson.

FAS Faculty voted to adopt the current Program in General Education in 2007 after a College-wide curricular review over the course of the early 2000s, legislating that the program should aim to achieve four main goals. These include preparing students to act as citizens, to respond to change, to understand ethical consequences of their words and actions, and to teach students to “understand themselves as products of, and participants in, traditions of art, ideas, and values.”

Today, there are 574 courses that count for Gen Ed credit, according to the report. Roughly half of those are “back of the book” courses, or departmental courses that satisfy the program’s requirements. The report states that it is evident that most of these departmental courses were not developed with the principles of Gen Ed in mind.

According to the report, the median size for “front of the book” Gen Ed courses is 50-99, compared to the 10-19 for non-Gen Ed courses.

The report also calls the current program a “chimera,” or a hybrid between a Gen Ed requirement and a distribution requirement, that fails to meet the goals of either type of requirement.

The report defines a General Education program as one that “aims to identify the fundamental value of an education” whose courses are not necessarily housed in certain departments.  Distribution requirements, on the other hand, would necessitate that students take a number of courses from different departments.

“Gen Ed is the head of our requirement because the Program claims to be motivated by a General Education philosophy. But the distribution requirement is the body because many courses that satisfy the requirement fail to manifest or even identify that philosophy,” the report says.

The report also states that Gen Ed course enrollments can be too large; TF’s and teaching assistants find Gen Ed courses to be the most difficult to teach; and section sizes tend to run larger than those in other courses. The Standing Committee on the Program in General Education also cites a lack of financial support for the program, according to the report.

While Kelly wrote in an email that his committee found a number of “terrific” Gen Ed courses, he said “in general the program is nowhere near the best version of what it aims to be.”

The report offers three suggestions to better the program, including clarifying the principles of the current program and changing the program to reflect these principles, instituting a full distribution requirement across departments, or offering a program that mixes elements of Gen Ed and distribution requirements. A mixed program could potentially reduce the number of courses students would be required to take, according to the report.

The committee released the report in February of this year to allow Faculty time for review and comment. Kelly will present this report, along with the committee’s work thus far, to the FAS faculty Tuesday.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.

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