As an international student who came to the U.S. for greater academic freedom, I held a vague and dreamy version of what a “liberal arts education” meant as I first stepped into Harvard Yard. After I entered college, I started to realize how complex it can be to implement a successful “liberal arts education.” Though most university officials in America believe it is valuable to expose students to multiple disciplines, it is not easy to reach a consensus on how to execute this mission. While Brown University and Amherst College have virtually no requirements for students’ course selection, The University of Chicago and Columbia University proudly mandate a relatively strict Core Curriculum. Comparatively, Harvard’s General Education program is more moderate and attracts less attention in this debate.

However, Harvard’s Gen Ed program has recently drawn lots of attention due to recent faculty recommendations. This March, a FAS vote passed a new Gen Ed program, which could be called a “4+3+1” program: four General Education courses in four re-named categories, three distributional courses across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering, and one “quantitative analysis” requirement. In addition, half of the eight courses can be taken pass/fail. These new requirements—especially the pass/fail provision—surprised many students and faculty, causing a new wave of discussions. I argue that the new program gives students greater flexibility while preserving the quality of their education. While this shift is beneficial, there are further actions that could be implemented to improve the revamped program.

Reflection: Current Gen Ed Program

Some students believe that Harvard’s current Gen Ed program does a good job in preserving students’ autonomy and providing mind-opening courses. On the other hand, others feel that the program added little value to students’ intellectual growth.

For instance, Anthony Thumpasery ’18, a transfer student from the University of Chicago, prefers Harvard’s Gen Ed system over UChicago’s “restricting” Core. Thumpasery came to college knowing he would pursue quantitative fields, but he was unsure of which subject to choose. Rather than allowing for exploration of academic interests, the Core required him to take a series of humanities courses with the theme “Reading Cultures.” In an interview with the HPR, Thumpasery recalled, “In Chicago, I was too busy getting Core classes out of the way.” Unlike the Core, Harvard’s Gen Ed program offered more course choices and allowed him to dabble in different fields with greater ease.

On the other hand, common criticisms surrounding the Gen Ed curriculum question the quality of offered courses, especially when compared to elective courses. For instance, Eleasha Chew ’18 told the HPR that she was looking for a class this spring semester about negotiation, and she was thrilled to find “Negotiation and Conflict Management: From the Interpersonal to the International.” However, she eventually had to let it go because she realized that it counted as neither Gen Ed nor her concentration requirement. Even though theoretically she could still take this elective, the fact that she would need to fulfill Gen Ed requirements deterred her.

These objections have even motivated some students to get around the Gen Ed requirements. Duligur Ibeling ’15 told the HPR that he pursued half Advanced Standing partly because he could waive one of the eight Gen Ed requirements. Other students attempt to fulfill the Gen Ed requirements by taking certain department courses. Mien Wang’18 recalled that the only good Gen Ed courses he had taken were department courses. Michael He ’18 even told the HPR that he planned to only take departmental courses. “I feel like department courses provide better experiences because they are courses regardless,” said He. Even students who fulfill the Gen Ed requirements through non-departmental courses may not be benefitting. According to Sean Kelly, the chair of the program review committee, many students simply see Gen Ed courses a way to get an easy A.

Evaluation: Revamped Gen Ed Program

These misgivings about the current Gen Ed program called for renewed, innovative ways to execute liberal arts education at Harvard. Acknowledging that the current Gen Ed program was “failing on a variety of fronts,” the Gen Ed Review Committee took on initiatives in the Gen Ed reform. Some components of the new program have received praise. For instance, the new program will be a mixture of both distributional requirement and Gen Ed requirements. The former requires that students take courses from different departments; the latter requires that students take non-departmental courses that a “well-educated student” should engage with. This combination will be beneficial for students who prefer department courses. “It’s a marriage of the two systems,” said Thumpasery. However, some concerns have arisen due to the administration’s lack of transparency in concocting the new program. Kevin Caffrey, the Course Director and Lecturer on Social Studies, told the HPR that he was not completely sure about the administration’s underlying rationale and thus found it hard to make well-informed comments. “They need to explain themselves so that people will know what is going on,” he said.

Most notably, the option of taking four courses pass/fail in the new program has spurred disagreement among student and faculty body. He ‘18 believed that he would benefit a lot from this new policy. “I wish I could take my current HAA 11 class pass/fail,” he said. He knew little about arts and felt overwhelmed by the many other students in class who had a previous art background. He added that if he could take it pass/fail, he would be able to enjoy this class without constantly being pressured by grades. Other students, however, showed more concern than relief. “I don’t really take classes seriously if take it pass/fail,” said Tumpasery. “I am kind of worried about the academic environment in the classroom. Even now you can feel that in the easy Gen Ed classes.”

Mary Brinton, Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology and the Department Chair, taught a Gen Ed course at Harvard Summer School Study Abroad program in 2015. “I did not have a strong opinion about the pass/fail option,” she said, “but I believe that four out of eight courses were a little bit too much.” Brinton was mainly concerned about the class dynamics. For example, the Gen Ed course she taught last summer contained several group projects. If she puts pass/fail student and for-credit student into one group, it will be very hard for them to collaborate because the former do not care as much as the latter do. If she puts all for-credit students into some groups and pass/fail students into other groups, the class dynamic will be broken, because some groups will be much stronger than others. In addition, students who take it pass/fail and who care less about the class could affect other students sitting beside them, particularly in a small class.

Looking Ahead: What Is To Be Done?

While the new Gen Ed program successfully offers students more flexibility, there are further improvements that could be made. First, Harvard should try to discourage students from taking Gen Ed courses pass/fail. For example, Harvard could preserve faculty members’ autonomy to decide whether students could take courses pass/fail for Gen Ed courses, just as it does for other courses. Connors said that there were dozens of students taking his class pass/fail, but he told students explicitly that “you need to work very hard” before he approved the requests.

Secondly, professors should be allowed to cap the size of Gen Ed courses. This is how Harvard’s Core program worked prior to the current Gen Ed system. However, in the current system, almost all courses are open to everyone. Even though this rule ensures that students are guaranteed to take courses they like, it decreases the level of faculty-student interaction, which is particularly important in teaching Gen Ed courses in which students learn some fundamental concepts. If there is not a large enough faculty body to teach Gen Ed courses or if certain courses are not necessary to teach in small class settings, Harvard could offer a large number of small courses and a small number of large courses, to keep the balance of course quality and the faculty body size.

Thirdly, Harvard should build up formal networks to collect professors’ feedback on Gen Ed courses. Just as students have the Q Guide to give feedback in time, faculty should have a formal feedback mechanism to communicate to the administration about their concerns and observations in teaching. “We don’t have any formal mechanism now,” said Halls. “We may in the future. We are still exploring more systematized ways to do so.” One possibility is to initiate a weekly newsletter among Gen Ed faculty that highlights the pedagogical practices of individual faculty members from different Gen Ed courses.  Similar systems have already been existed in other areas: Into Practice, for example, is a bi-weekly communication distributed to active instructors across the University during the academic year.

Executing any noble educational idea is challenging. “I have seen Harvard struggling (with Gen Ed) all these years,” said Brinton in a half joking tone. Perhaps, the very way to find out the most suitable liberal arts program for Harvard is exactly by trial and error. As for me, the disillusion of a dreamy liberal arts education in this country leads to a realization: it is not scary to make mistakes; what matters is to actively engaged in reflection and improvement along the way.


Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

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