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Harvard is a School. It Should Value Education.

By Soumyaa Mazumder
By Meaghan E. Townsend
Meaghan E. Townsend '21 is an English concentrator in Lowell House.

It’s a terrible feeling to be approaching graduating from Harvard with my field worse off than I found it. As a first-year, I was thrilled by the 2018 creation of the secondary in Educational Studies. I walked a newly constructed pathway into education. I took General Education 1076: Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education (then USW 35), pursued the Ed secondary, and joined the Harvard Teacher Fellows, through which I will teach English next year. Now, as a senior, I’m devastated to see that bridge collapsed behind me.

The College has chosen not to renew Gen Ed 1076 for the 2021-22 school year. This decision stifles the Ed secondary, devalues education as an academic and professional path, and ignores an unprecedented outpouring of support. Harvard must reverse this decision and affirm its commitment to education.

There are two key issues here. First, the College’s messaging has been inconsistent and misleading. Second, the deferral of Gen Ed 1076 disregards that course’s centrality to the Ed secondary — and deepens a lack of institutional support for the study of education.

News of the course’s non-renewal caught fire, eliciting a 988-signature, 72-page petition for reinstatement. Nina B. Elkadi ’22, Allison P. Pao ’21, and I emailed this petition to the administration asking to meet. Dealt an initial dismissal, we pointed out their inconsistencies.

The Gen Ed Committee originally referenced the University’s tightening belt: “Our budget is very constrained.” Later, College spokesperson Rachael Dane asserted a “two-year rotation” for non-Faculty of Arts and Sciences Gen Eds. College Dean Rakesh Khurana echoed a similar refrain: “We do anticipate that all non-FAS lead Gen Ed courses will need to be offered on a rotational basis going forward.”

There is no current evidence that any class besides Gen Ed 1076 has been placed on rotation. Of 89 total Gen Eds in 2020-21, we reached out to the 19 courses taught by non-FAS faculty. Eight confirmed that they will repeat in 2021-22. Only three courses are confirmed not to run next year. One professor is on sabbatical, another will likely serve the Biden administration. The third is Gen Ed 1076.

Is this rotation being applied to all non-FAS Gen Ed courses, or just Gen Ed 1076? What do “anticipate” and “going forward” mean for 2021-22? The administration could easily issue a public clarification. It hasn’t. Gen Ed 1076 seems to be the only course that has been deferred next year, and we have a right to know why.

This deferral undercuts Harvard’s already-weak infrastructure for the study of education. Multiple signers of the petition referenced a stigma against using their Harvard degree to enter the field. Maybe that’s part of why 45 percent of Harvard’s Class of 2020 is pursuing careers in finance and consulting, while only two percent began careers in education. And that is with Gen Ed 1076 in place.

The course is utterly central to the Ed secondary. Among the graduating classes of 2019-22, 60 of 73 Ed secondary students (82 percent) have taken Gen Ed 1076. Can the College name a single non-mandatory course that is equally central to another secondary? Deferring this course cuts the Ed secondary off at its roots.

Dean Khurana pledged an “ongoing commitment to providing courses, experiences, and opportunities in education.” That has to be backed up by action. At a minimum, Harvard should commit to replacing this course with another on K-12 education. We asked for this commitment, more than once, and received no acknowledgment. Without Gen Ed 1076, even fewer undergraduates will enter education at a time when they are gravely needed.

It cannot be lost that I am writing as thousands of Harvard students are in the midst of a mandatory lockdown. Class has been online for nearly a year. Between one to three million K-12 students are estimated to have not attended school since March — in the U.S. alone. UNICEF has warned of a lost generation of students. Now is the time to reinforce courses like Gen Ed 1076.

There are so many levels of irony to the College’s response.

In an educational emergency, they are undermining the study of education. In the same year that it received a record 57,000 applications, the College is eliminating the only course that asks undergraduates to reflect on “Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education.” Amid a reckoning with racism, they are torching a developing pathway into social justice work. In a national moment of accountability, they don’t seem to be telling the truth.

After Gen Ed 1076’s announced cancellation, Kia C. Turner ’16, who graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2017, wrote to the administration. “I became a teacher because this class convinced me that education was the justice issue of my generation and that I could make a difference by using my Harvard education to reimagine schools and classrooms that hold, lift, and support Black and Brown students like me.” In response, Turner received the same email response that our petition did from Dean Khurana — word for word.

Copying and pasting could mean one of two things. The College either did not read and take seriously the petition. Or their story of a non-FAS rotation is so fragile it must be held together word by word.

Is Ctrl+C an appropriate response to a 988-signature petition for a course that has over-lotteried and received glowing reviews for a decade? With testimonials from generations of students? With alumni representation from 1960 to the present? With support from tenured professors, varsity coaches, and resident deans?

On Thursday, a high school student told our Harvard Teacher Fellows cohort that his worst teacher was a “brick wall” who ignored students. I would like to believe this administration is not a brick wall. Dean Khurana and Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh are set to meet with us this week; the Gen Ed Committee has so far declined a meeting.

Gen Ed 1076 offers the College an opportunity to heed an unprecedented surge of student advocacy, affirm the value of education, and restore a crucial pathway into public service. I hope they take it.

Meaghan E. Townsend '21 is an English concentrator in Lowell House.

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Op Eds