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For Gen Ed, Harvard Faculty Oppose a System Like Yale's

By Karl M. Aspelund and Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writers

This is the first part in an occasional series on the College’s Program in General Education.

As the College reviews its General Education program that is “failing on a variety of fronts,” its New Haven rival has maintained a set of distribution requirements as its core curriculum—an option available here but favored by neither the committee reviewing the program nor most members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who must vote on any large-scale reforms.

In 2011, Yale reviewed its program—which was first implemented for the class of 2009—without recommendations for major structural changes. Instead, it maintained a system that requires students to take classes in the major fields of arts and humanities, science, and social science. Yale students must also take courses intended to develop their skills in writing, foreign language, and quantitative reasoning.

Unlike Harvard’s program, courses that count for Yale’s distribution requirements only come from departments. Harvard students have the option of fulfilling their Gen Ed requirements with departmental courses or those from one of the eight categories, like “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding” or “Societies of the World.”

An interim report on General Education at Harvard characterized the program as failing

Many faculty members argue that Harvard’s Gen Ed program should be reformed, rather than replaced with a system like Yale’s, emphasizing that distribution requirements would not fit Harvard’s academic culture. Undergraduates specialize naturally in their academic pursuits at Harvard, where departments are often fairly segmented, and encourage students to participate in research in their particular fields, said Anthropology professor Mary M. Steedly, a member of the Committee on General Education.

Distribution requirements like Yale’s would not necessarily give students the more expansive understanding that the Gen Ed program was designed to give, according to English professor Louis Menand.

According to the Yale program’s website, these requirements “constitute a minimal education, not a complete one, and represent the least that an educated person should seek to know.”

Yale's New Haven campus.
Yale's New Haven campus. By Wikimedia Commons

Not everyone at Yale fully supports the distribution model. To Bryan Garsten, chair of the humanities program at Yale, the “minimal education” aim is not ambitious enough. It is less work for faculty to offer courses in a distributional system as opposed to one like Harvard’s and is not geared for students who are less familiar with different academic fields.

Harvard’s faculty, he said, has a unique opportunity to collaborate and create a cohesive program intended to play a large part in an undergraduate’s academic experience.

The Gen Ed program has yet to live up to that expectation, however, and one of the most significant obstacles for the College’s core curriculum, as outlined in the review and by faculty members, is the lack of a perceived role for Gen Ed in the undergraduate experience here.

Menand, who headed the committee that crafted the current Gen Ed program in 2006, said the program’s identity at Harvard fell short of comparable curricula at other Ivy League schools as well.

He cited Brown, which has no core curriculum whatsoever, as a counterexample to Harvard. Students attend Brown partly because that lack of a core is well publicized and considered a key part of the “Brown experience,” Menand said. Columbia’s Core Curriculum, in which all freshmen take the same courses, is another example where accepted students are very aware of how it fits into their academic lives once they arrive.

Similarly, “Gen Ed has to become a part of the College’s larger identity,” Menand said.

The Gen Ed review committee will present a final draft of recommendations to faculty members at a town hall meeting on Tuesday. Sean D. Kelly, the chair of the committee, hopes that faculty will vote to approve a new general education program by the end of the semester.

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

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