Mourning the Core

Gen Ed is not meeting the ideals of a liberal arts education

2011 was the 375th year of Harvard College, but it was also the fourth year of the Harvard College Program in General Education. The former anniversary was celebrated with a massive cake, but the latter may hold more significance for students. The new Gen Ed requirements have calcified a trend of seeking applicability instead of meaning out of the undergraduate education, a trend that betrays the ideals upon which Harvard as a college was founded. Pre-2007, this mentality was already pervasive in the actions and priorities of students, but now it is actually endorsed by the University. As one of the last cohort of students fulfilling their general requirements under the Core Curriculum instead of Gen Ed, I worry that the Core hasn’t been mourned enough. The Core provided a good education, and its trendy, 21st-century, interdisciplinary, “useful” replacement is an unwelcome change.

From the ’40s to today, college-wide undergraduate requirements have swung from being philosophical to applicable. In 1979, the College moved from mandating that students take courses in social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences to mandating courses in seven of eleven disciplines. Then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry A. Rosovsky oversaw the creation of 70-odd specific “Core” courses that were independent of any department. Then, in 2007, the faculty voted to move to Gen Ed, which requires students to take classes in eight general categories of learning. At the time, On Harvard Time joked that the curricular review committee had just used a “thesaurus.”

But a close look at the Core reveals that it is significantly different from Gen Ed. Under the Core, students are meant to learn methodologies of different academic disciplines: how to think like a historian (History B), an English professor (Literature A), a biologist  (Science B). This did mean that students often took Core classes on absurdly specific topics. New York Times columnist Ross G. Douthat ’02, one of the Core’s loudest critics, wrote in The Atlantic in 2005, “A Harvard graduate may have read no Shakespeare or Proust; he may be unable to distinguish Justinian the Great from Julian the Apostate, or to tell you the first ten elements in the periodic table (God knows I can't). But one need only mention ‘Mass Culture in Nazi Germany’ or ‘Constructing the Samurai’ and his eyes will light up with fond memories.”

In contrast, the Gen Ed categories are eminently applicable. These courses are meant to leave students versed in issues that have contemporary relevance, issues which they may use to make decisions about in the future. They will become “citizens of the world,” a phrase that, for me, always calls to mind George Clooney’s sterile technocrat in "Up in the Air." Thus, Gen Eds cover discrete sets of information on “important”—a wonderful euphemism for “fashionable”—topics. Courses like “Case Studies in Global Health,” “The Mainsprings of Global Power,” and “Thinking about the Constitution,” are the new ideal. Even rollover courses from the Core that are the same in overall content and instructor have shifted focus.

I think this is a mistake. True, the current dialogues on “global health” or “empire” are important, but they can be grasped by reading news articles for two hours. It is much harder to teach someone how to think like a historian or how to believe in the scientific method. This is indicated by the fact that Gen Eds have unwittingly become havens of grade deflation because often all they require for mastery is rote memorization rather than internalization of a new mindset. At the beginning of each shopping period, a common question in Gen Eds is “do you curve?” because everyone has caught on to the fact that Gen Ed’s intellectual framework is so weak.


Moreover, when the liberal arts try to be applicable, they cease to be liberal arts at all. Contrary to what Douthat posited, a liberal arts education is not and has never been about memorizing arbitrary tracts of information. It is about understanding the fundamental intellectual divisions of society—the economist and the social theorist or the scientist and the humanist. Once this is understood, it gives meaning to why some people believe Bohr’s model of the atom was the most important advancement of the 20th century and why others believe that James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was. Under the Core, the subject matter of a course was beside the point—the point was learning how to use a particular cognitive tool so that by the end of four years you could empathize with all epistemological worldviews.

Former president Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, wrote, at Harvard “the young man learns something of what has been done and thought in the world, before he takes active part in its work.” A Harvard education should not be valuable because it leaves students with relevant information; it should be valuable because it leaves students with meaningful analytical faculties. Indeed, understanding the difference between relevance and meaning and how to spot the qualities of each in any concrete initiative is the key reward of the liberal arts education. Thus, methodology and discipline, not subject, should be the priority when forming a cross-college curriculum. In this way, while the Core Curriculum sometimes descended into absurd specificities, it upheld the ideals of the liberal arts education. Harvard College need not lower itself to becoming a current events seminary; we can do better than that.

Anita J Joseph ‘12, an editorial chair emeritus, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.