Direction and Choice

In Harvard's new take on general education, all undergrads would study the U.S. and religion, and "activity based learning" would be urged. 
October 5, 2006

In the history of American higher education, Harvard University has played a key (if not always admired) role in defining what students should learn. Early in the 20th century, Harvard instituted the menu approach of distribution requirements, a system that is still central to hundreds of colleges' curriculums. After World War II, Harvard published General Education in a Free Society -- a call for general education that came to be known as the Red Book. While institutions like Columbia University and the University of Chicago could point out that their core curriculums predated the Harvard effort, Harvard got much of the credit for putting forth the idea that some common educational experience was essential to impart knowledge and prepare students to function in the world.

For nearly four years now, Harvard has been trying to rethink general education and to replace a system put in place in 1979 in which students have needed to complete requirements in certain broad areas like foreign cultures, moral reasoning and science. Along the way, the university has stumbled and issued and withdrew several reports that called for a return to a distribution requirement system -- and those reports have been widely criticized in Cambridge and in education circles elsewhere.

On Wednesday, the university released a new plan for undergraduate education that would designate certain subjects as ones that must be studied. As a result, every Harvard undergraduate would have to take a course on the United States and a course dealing with religion, among others. Few top colleges and universities have such requirements. But students would be able to pick within those broad topics, with the idea that many courses would meet the requirements.

In that the course areas are much more specific than distribution requirements, the report (which the university distributed on paper to faculty members and has not placed online) is an endorsement of a general education approach. The report's call for "activity based learning," in which more efforts would link classroom and non-classroom experiences, echoes the calls of many for an emphasis on recognizing the extent to which college students learn and live outside formal class settings. But to the extent that the Harvard approach -- which would still require faculty approval -- gives students plenty of choices, there are still ways in which it resembles a distribution system.

"The trick was always to balance substance and prescription with student choice," said Louis Menand, a professor of English and co-chair of the faculty panel that came up with the new plan. "Students strongly believe in choice, and they don't like to be restricted. At the same time, faculty really felt dissatisfied with a straight vanilla distribution." He added that professors felt strongly that the areas they have identified for study represent "what we think is really important" for students to learn.

Many experts on curricular reform who don't work in Cambridge said that what Harvard does on these questions does matter far outside of its campus. Harvard doesn't have the influence it once did on the curriculum nationally and the Harvard panel noted that it was trying to develop a plan for its institution, not the country. "The most exciting undergraduate innovations the days are occurring at places that have not had the albatross of eminence to carry with them," said Lee S. Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

At the same time, Shulman and others said that there's no doubt that "what Harvard does counts." It counts enough that some curricular experts were pleased Wednesday to hear that the proposed distribution approach that panels had proposed earlier had been abandoned. If the university has influence, many said that they didn't want the influence exercised in that direction.

"The last report strongly resembled the latest thing in 1911, and it was a national embarrassment," said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "It's heartening to see Harvard move ahead in a 21st century general education."

Others were less impressed. Shulman said he was disappointed that there were so many options within the categories, and said that Harvard might have done better to truly articulate a common set of knowledge, and a set of courses that would provide a more common experience than is possible with a full range of choices. "It takes a lot of courage in this day of 'everything is an elective,' for faculty to take a stand, and say here at Harvard or at Southeast Missouri, this is how we define an educated person in a democracy," he said.

Shulman said that the university committee that produced the plan was no doubt correct that students want lots of choices within requirements, but he said that wasn't something on which to focus. "I recognize that there's a tradeoff" between honoring student wishes for choice and instituting faculty views, he said, adding "Harvard students all want A's too."

Defining the Purpose of General Education

The 39-page report issued by the faculty panel Wednesday opens with a discussion of the purpose of general education. The report notes that students pick up in-depth disciplinary knowledge in their majors, but that relatively few Harvard students aspire to careers in academe -- only 4 percent of freshmen have that goal, compared to 53 percent of seniors who reported that their post-graduation goal was to enroll in business, medical or law school.

In this context, the report says: "The role of general education, as we conceive it, is to connect what students learn at Harvard to life beyond Harvard, and to help them understand and appreciate the complexities of the world and their role in it. The mission of general education is not utilitarian or pre-professional. The material that is taught in general education is continuous with the material taught in the rest of the curriculum. But it is taught in a distinctive way and in the service of distinctive goals. General education is the place where students are brought to understand how everything that we teach in the liberal arts and sciences relates to their lives and to the world that they will confront."

The report goes on to say that general education "prepares students to be citizens of a democracy within a global society" and also teaches students to "understand themselves as product of -- and participants in -- traditions of art, ideas and values." General education should also encourage students to "adapt to change" and to have a sense of ethics, the report says.

The general education proposed by the faculty panel would have students take three one-semester courses in "critical skills" in written and oral communication, foreign languages, and analytical reasoning.

Then students would have to take seven courses in the following categories:

  • Cultural traditions and cultural change.
  • The ethical life.
  • The United States and the world (one each in the U.S. and the world).
  • Reason and faith.
  • Science and technology (one in a life science and one in a physical science).

Within these categories, there would be a broad range of courses that could fulfill the requirements. Each would have to meet certain general education requirements, such as providing a broad scope of knowledge and encouraging student-faculty contact. But the subject matter within categories could vary significantly.

For instance, courses suggested as possibilities for the cultural traditions requirement include "The Emergence of World Literature," "Art and Censorship," and "Representations of the Other." Courses for study of the United States could include "Health Care in the United States: A Comparative Perspective" and "Pluralist Societies: The United States in Comparative Context." The reason and faith requirement, which would involve all students studying religion in some form, might have courses such as "Religion and Closed Societies" and "Religion and Democracy."

In explaining the rationale for a faith and reason requirement, the Harvard professors noted that most college undergraduates care about religion and discuss it, but "often struggle -- sometimes for the first time in their lives -- to sort out the relationship between their own beliefs and practices, the different beliefs and practices of fellow students, and the profoundly secular and intellectual world of the academy itself."

The report also noted the many tensions around religion in modern society -- including fights over school prayer, same-sex marriage, and stem cell research. "Harvard is no longer an institution with a religious mission, but religion is a fact that Harvard's graduates will confront in their lives both in and after college," the report said, explaining why a religion requirement is important. At the same time, it added: "Let us be clear. Courses in reason and faith are not religious apologetics. They are courses that examine the interplay between religion and various aspects of national and/or international culture and society." In the ethics requirement, students will consider how to make ethical choices, but in religion, students "will appreciate the role of religion in contemporary, historical or future events -- personal, cultural, national or international."

'Activity Based Learning'

Beyond the various course requirements, the Harvard panel called for the university to consider new ways to link students' in-class and out-of-class experiences.

"The big thing for many Harvard undergrads tends to be their extracurricular activities. It's almost a cliché that they spend more time out of the yard than in the yard," said Menand. "We don't want to bureaucratize that, but we think there is a natural connection between the classroom and what takes place out of the classroom."

This part of the report is more vague and less prescriptive, and in fact the panel calls for another panel to consider how to carry out the idea of promoting "activity based learning." Generally, the report said, the pedagogical idea it wants Harvard to embrace is that "the ability to apply abstract knowledge to concrete cases -- and vice versa." Examples given to show the value of this kind of learning include the statements that "studying the philosophy of the 17th century might inform the production of a classic play by Molière" and "working on a political campaign can bring to life material in a course on democracy."

In a course, this link might be made through optional papers that students could write on how an outside activity helped the student understand course material or how course material influenced a planned activity. If several students participate in the same out-of-class activity, team work might be involved in and outside of class. And in either case, the report said, closer faculty-student contact would be encouraged.

What It Means in Cambridge and Beyond

At Harvard, a series of meeting are now being scheduled for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to review the report and -- eventually -- to vote on it. Menand said that while the review would take months at least, it need not wait for Harvard to have a new permanent president.

Schneider of the Association of American Colleges and Universities said she thought the report might have a positive impact. "I think that what this is doing is restoring the purpose of general education requirements, which is to connect learning with real world citizenship."

She said it made a lot of sense for Harvard to say that students need to study the United States, and the world, and science, and religion, etc., rather than using broad distribution requirements. "Let's think about what's going on in American high schools. Students have one year of American history or maybe two, but they may never study the United States again," she said. Harvard's proposal would mean that they would study the United States again, and at a deeper level than they could in high school.

Schneider rejected the idea that there should be a single course or curriculum in the various areas identified by the faculty as important. "There is a myth out there that there was once a set of common courses and we have fallen away from those courses. Well I used to teach those courses, and if you had 30 people teaching Western Civ, it was being taught in 30 different ways," she said.

"I think what Harvard is saying is that there is not one canonical course in American history everyone must complete, but there are some important questions and people should study them," she said.

Nancy Thomas, who coordinated the work that led to the "Wingspread Declaration on Religion and Public Life: Engaging Higher Education," said she was encouraged by Harvard's plan. That declaration, by a group of prominent scholars, called on colleges to recognize the importance of religious life in society and to include it more fully in the curriculum.

"I think it's a great thing," Thomas said of the idea that all Harvard undergrads could be studying religion in some way. "These are valid areas of study, and inquiry, and I think religion is such a critical issue in American public life that if we don't educate our students in ways that opens up new areas of exploration for them, and encourage them to be intellectually curious about religion, we're putting blinders on."

Other experts warned that Harvard's faculty may have a more difficult time than it realizes making whatever plan it adopts really stick. John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), said that as he has watched the history of curricular reforms, he has seen many of them fail to live up to expectations. A lot will depend on how committed professors are to any change adopted, he said.

"Usually there are ways that any imaginative student or faculty member can somehow evade" most requirements, he said.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top