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The 1945 report of the first committee on General Education is not the product of your usual Harvard task force. The inside cover is outfitted with the regalia of the United States government, replete with the State Department seal. The eagle clasps a banner that reads, “Truth is our strength.” The cover is emblazoned with the high aims of the program: “General Education in a Free Society.”
In those first post-war decades, it must have been easy to see Harvard as an essential American institution. President John F. Kennedy ’40, a former Crimson editor, could hold meetings of the Board of Overseers at the White House and invite the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to be National Security Advisor.
These grandiose visions for Harvard’s role in American life have subsided over the last 70 years. It has been some time indeed since any State Department, never mind this one, charged Harvard academics with the mantle of defending democracy in America. Indeed, today Harvard is less a defender of Western forms of government than playing defense against ours.
Today’s Gen Ed guidelines will probably not make the case for electives as a bulwark against the dangers of communism. They will probably not include sentences like, “We are at a turning point indeed in human affairs,” and, “General education is the sole means by which communities can protect themselves from the ill effects of overrapid change.” But if the authors of the 1945 report thought rather too highly of the import of their work, it’s hard not to think that today there’s been an over-correction in the opposite direction.
Today the General Education program hardly seems like an urgent priority, or at least not since former University President Lawrence H. Summers and former FAS Dean William C. Kirby sought to reimagine it in the mid-2000s. We’re told that the most recent remake—announced in 2015 after a College report said the current program was “failing on a variety of fronts”—will be delayed a year to the fall of 2019.
Intended as a compromise between a non-departmental General Education program and a distribution requirement consisting solely of departmental courses, the new system will include required coursework in four categories: Aesthetics & Culture; Histories, Societies, Individuals; Science & Technology in Society; and Ethics & Civics. (A proposed additional requirement is under review, entitled “Thinking with Data,” and I suppose it is somewhat amusing they thought that additional and separate requirement was necessary.)
I am sure that a great deal of thoughtfulness, scholarship, and genuine effort went into this new proposal, but it’s hard to not be at least a little cynical about its practical effectiveness. For starters, the categories are remarkably broad; it’s hard to imagine what—besides the most pure of the natural sciences—wouldn’t constitute “Histories, Societies, Individuals.” It seems to encompass all aspects of the human experience.
The interim categories for the transition to the new Gen Ed system are vaguer still. Witness the choice to amalgamate two existing requirements—“Science of the Physical Universe” and “Science of Living Systems,” where all qualifying classes now interchangeably count for both.
As part of that change, introductory computer science and statistics have been reclassified as fulfilling “Science of the Physical Universe,” a category traditionally reserved for the likes of physics and chemistry. Indeed, administrators seem to have decided that computer science is, upon second reflection, actually a science. (That’s wonderful news for me. I am weeks from a degree in political science, which, according to the Gen Ed program’s transitive-property-esque logic, might eventually be up there with physics.)
These over-expansive categories only reinforce one of the biggest failings of the present program: self-selection. Each shopping week, intrepid undergrads leave no stone unturned in a ceaseless quest to ferret out the not-quite-endangered species of the course catalog: Science classes sans problem sets and humanities courses devoid of readings. The rush to the (self-advertised!) lowest-common-denominator is one reason the program can’t encourage class-wide learning.
It’s a shame that our expectations for a Harvard education have become so vague and so easily fulfillable. The original 1945 program drafters had impossibly grand aims, but their articulation of the purpose of a college education should at least echo today. Present University administrators tell us frequently about their quest to graduate better citizens and citizen-leaders. Yet even as the new categories are more directly linked with social ends—look no further than the transformation of the science requirement into the study of “Science & Technology in Society”—the Gen Ed program has been dramatically simplified from its original Cold War-era mission.
It may be the case that Gen Eds past had little to do with the defeat of the Evil Empire. (That had, I think, a lot more to do with the presence of the United States in the world than with the presence of “United States in the World.”)
But there is a certain degree of rigor that seems appropriate, a certain sense that a Harvard education should have something to do with being an educated citizen of this country. Even the more modest aim of producing well-rounded graduates relies on it. On that front, at least, I hope very much for the new program’s success.
Derek K. Choi ’18, a former president of The Crimson, is a Government concentrator in Leverett House.
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