Programmatic Change

The General Education transition is producing intriguing data and ideas

Ever since a report published in the spring of 2015 found that the College’s General Education program was “failing on a variety of fronts,” the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Gen Ed administrators have been working to revamp this signature set of requirements. Now, after the approval of a new program in March, administrators have a year of data at their fingertips as they look to interpret the effects of the proposed changes, and an opportunity to shape the courses that fulfill the new requirements. While it remains too early to draw any definite conclusions about the exact impact of the overhaul, students, faculty, and administrators can all work to ensure that it comes as close as possible to achieving the lofty goals set out in the mission statement of the program.

We have long been skeptical of the limited overhaul of the Gen Ed program that the faculty eventually implemented, arguing instead for a system of broad distribution requirements. This reservation aside, the data released last week by Stephanie H. Kenen, the administrative director of Gen Ed, suggests that the reduced number of categories in the new program has provided students with greater flexibility. In particular, the enrollment drops in Gen Ed courses that fulfill the Societies of the World and Culture and Belief requirements suggest that current students have taken advantage of requirements completed through previously-taken courses to free up spaces in their schedules for other courses.

We must, however, resist the temptation to overgeneralize. As Kenen points out, this data represents only one semester and “does not make a trend.” It may indicate, however, that the new program is allowing students the freedom to explore areas in which they may not otherwise take classes without imposing as much on their schedules. It also suggests that the changes are curtailing the unnecessary overlaps and redundancies that characterized the previous program. As faculty and administrators work to develop courses for the requirements of the new Gen Ed, we hope they continue to bear these factors in mind.

Beyond data on course enrollments, Kenen’s other comments about the College’s goals for the new Gen Ed are highly encouraging. Her emphasis on increasing transparency for students and on seeking out their input on changes to courses is especially compelling. Recent national events and the campus reactions to them have amply demonstrated that Harvard students are well-versed in applying their studies to the world beyond the classroom, and more student input would help ensure that new courses are tailored to the most salient issues of our time.

As stated by Kenen, “If Gen Ed is supposed to help students link what they’ve learned in the classroom to what they do outside, what does that mean from [their] perspective.” With the new Gen Ed working to embody the program’s original goal of “prepar[ing] students for a life of civil and ethical engagement with a changing world”, the student perspective—while far from the program’s only important element—will become more crucial than ever. We hope administrators continue to consult it as they work towards the full-scale launch of the new Gen Ed.


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