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Putting the General in Gen Ed

“Every student should know a little of everything and something well.”

Every time I give a tour to guests visiting Harvard, I repeat that quote, first said by former University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1887. It’s used to highlight the College’s General Education system, with its purported intellectual diversity and freedom.

After all, everyone comes to Harvard wanting something different from their education. Some people steadfastly stick to their concentration for four years. Others pack their schedules full of low-work, easy-A “gems.” And still others pursue a plan of study like the one envisioned by Lowell.

I’m in that last group. Freshman year, I craved a liberal arts experience characterized by the Great Books, by canons, by studying the essential knowledge of various fields—especially in the humanities. I envisioned syllabi filled with books I’d never read before, which would transform me into a better-informed student and citizen, fill in gaps from high school, and make me more well-read. (I’ve learned one thing for certain: You can never be well-read—there are always more books out there.)

The General Education system, with its broad fields of study, seemed to promise I’d learn much in my time here. But I quickly realized that wouldn’t be the case. In my experience, there are very few courses at Harvard that are comprehensive surveys of their field. That’s not to say they don’t exist, but they are often hard to find.

Take, for example, the celebrated Humanities 10: “A Humanities Colloquium,” team-taught by six professors, all veritable rock stars in their respective fields. It’s a breathtaking survey of world literature, and counts for two Gen Ed requirements, as well as the Expository Writing requirement. It’s an amazing course—for the 90 freshmen lucky enough to take it. For the rest of us who want a similar education but couldn’t get in, we must find courses like it elsewhere—and that isn’t always easy.

Hum 10’s selectivity isn’t all bad: Its smaller size is preferable to the likes of monstrous Economics 10: “Principles of Economics,” a course more indicative of survey and Gen Ed courses at the College, characterized by massive class sizes, distant teaching staff, and perpetually packed office hours.

But my biggest issue with Gen Ed courses is that most simply aren’t wide-ranging in their scope. Though the fields of study the current and new Gen Ed systems present to us are broad, the courses within them are often incredibly specific. History, for example, does have a survey course on American history: United States in the World 42: “The Democracy Project.” But the department also offers Gen Ed courses on Germany from 1848 to 1948, the history of the book, and racial capitalism and imperialism in the U.S. between the Revolution and the Civil War.

I don’t mean to criticize these courses, or the History department. But if the Gen Ed system makes it possible for anyone to take such specific courses for credit and have it be their only exposure to history at Harvard, does it really reflect Harvard’s commitment to the liberal arts?

As Ross G. Douthat ’02 wrote in The Atlantic in 2005, it’s easy to leave Harvard Yard after four years without learning much of anything at all. He then spoke of Harvard’s nearly 30-year-old Core Curriculum, replaced in 2009 with the current General Education system—which now stands to be significantly overhauled itself, less than 15 years after Douthat’s portent.

His words are as relevant today as they were then: “A Harvard graduate may have read no Shakespeare or Proust; he may be unable to distinguish Justinian the Great from Julian the Apostate, or to tell you the first ten elements in the periodic table (God knows I can't).”

We can and should debate at length whether Gen Ed ought to teach Harvard students about Shakespeare and Justinian, or the merits of a canon. But one thing is certain: Many classes don’t directly reflect these debates. I won’t mince words: Harvard’s General Education system lacks general education. The focus on the specific goes against the “Gen” in Gen Ed, reinforcing the idea that the liberal arts themselves are just a buzzword.

The General Education Review Committee’s final report on the new implementation continuously cites the expression “Ars Vivendi in Mundo” as its goal—Latin for “the art of living wisely in the world.” But many Gen Ed courses don’t engage with this ideal. I fail to see how Gen Ed classes, many known for their esoteric nature or status as easy-A “gems,” lead students to walk away knowing how to live wisely.

Additionally, hyper-specific courses belie the fact that some students at the College come from schools that didn’t offer the requisite background for them, or hail from other countries with vastly different curricular systems. Students shouldn’t have to give up certain Gen Ed courses because they lack background knowledge. The History Department can offer courses on Germany from 1848 to 1948, but additionally ought to offer courses on the history of modern Europe, or the modern world.

The new Gen Ed system should thus incorporate more survey courses that (while perhaps necessarily capped to preserve educational benefits) should be accessible to all students, regardless of concentration or academic trajectory. Not every course has to be like Hum 10 (but certainly not like Ec 10). But Hum 10 is a testament to the power that a well-taught survey course can do for students and for Gen Ed. Courses like it should be available for those of us who want these options to make Harvard’s liberal education stronger.

Then, I might not feel so conflicted quoting Lowell to tourists.

Robert Miranda ’20, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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