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Harvard Must Rethink Its Approach to Liberal Arts

By Tarun Timalsina, Contributing Opinion Writer
Tarun Timalsina ’22 is an Economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

Harvard believes in the transformative potential of liberal arts education. And it is through this remarkable power of liberal arts that Harvard pursues its mission to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders of our society.” But has Harvard really done justice to the spirit of liberal arts?

Harvard’s model for imparting its liberal arts education has been its flagship General Education program. At Harvard, students do not just take courses in their field of study.

In addition to taking a course in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, students must take General Education courses across four categories: aesthetics and culture; ethics and civics; histories, societies, individuals; and science and technology in society. These requirements, together with the mandatory expository writing requirement to be completed in students’ first year, a foreign language requirement, and a quantitative reasoning requirement, form the core of Harvard’s liberal arts curriculum.

While this model gives the impression of fostering intellectual breadth, it leaves a lot to be desired.

A typical Gen Ed course meets twice a week in a large lecture hall where between a couple dozen and a few hundred students passively listen to their professor’s monologue. In these Gen Ed classes, one can get away with never speaking up in class, ever talking to the professor, and most crucially, without ever meaningfully engaging with the topic. There are smaller, tight-knit discussion sections led by graduate students that meet each week, but these sections can often feel fleeting, incomplete, and futile. These courses often fail to generate sufficient interest among many students, who treat these classes as an unavoidable inconvenience. It is thus no wonder that many students end up enrolling in “gems” that require little effort and guarantee a good grade.

However, this culture of treating Gen Eds as a nuisance is antithetical to a true liberal arts education. At its core, a liberal arts education is meant to develop critical thinking required to challenge various assumptions and biases underpinning our beliefs, stimulate intellectual growth through a holistic approach to knowledge, engender inquisitiveness about the most pressing issues facing humanity, and cultivate a strong moral character. The ethos of liberal arts, I believe, can be summed up in this famous quote from Plato’s Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

To be educated in the liberal arts, thus, is to be curious about the world around you, to engage in intellectual debates to get closer to truth, to meditate deeply on the human condition, and to lead a meaningful life. But how successful is Harvard’s curriculum in encouraging this?

Currently, Harvard’s commitment to liberal arts is too shallow. It does not have to be this way. In envisaging a true liberal arts education for its students, Harvard could derive inspiration from Columbia’s core curriculum. At Columbia, each student has to take a certain number of small, discussion-based humanities courses that delve into interdisciplinary topics and engage students with primary sources. Every student at Columbia takes these courses during their time at college, where they critically engage with the dominant themes of our contemporary civilization and study the masterpieces of literature and philosophy, music, visual art, and modern science.

By the end of their first year at Columbia, students have a shared academic experience of reading and discussing texts that have shaped our world in fundamental ways. This experience makes students better thinkers and contributes to creating a more cohesive community by facilitating open discussions and free exchange of ideas in dining halls, dorm rooms, and libraries. In this way, students are encouraged to learn from their peers and empathize with diverse perspectives even outside the classroom. This, I would argue, should be the hallmark of any liberal arts education.

While any liberal arts curriculum prides itself on academic flexibility, what Harvard needs, paradoxically, is a more rigid curriculum that is sufficiently rigorous and challenges students to get out of their comfort zones. The purpose of a liberal arts curriculum should be to inspire students to be independent, life-long learners, and fostering independent learning requires guidance. A core curriculum consisting of timeless works that trace the history of ideas and examine the human condition can serve as the foundation for cultivating the independence and intellectual inquiry essential to a complete education. This would also serve as an antidote to the excesses of career-oriented learning that’s ubiquitous at Harvard. Instead, students will be encouraged to learn for the sake of understanding the world.

To that end, in their first year, all students should be exposed to great works of art, literature and philosophy from around the world in small discussion seminars led by Harvard faculty. These classes should abstain from passive pedagogy and should instead be styled in the Socratic tradition. Each student should be expected to produce original, thought-provoking work at the end of these courses reflecting on their sense of purpose in the world.

Ultimately, in addition to nurturing student-faculty relationships, the aim of this model would be to promote human flourishing through helping students discover themselves. This would go a long way in making Harvard’s promise of a true liberal arts education credible.

Tarun Timalsina ’22 is an Economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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