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Harvard’s “Report of the Task Force on General Education”: An Overview With Commentary

February 14, 2007

Earlier this month Harvard University released its “Report of the Task Force on General Education.” You can view the Report here. Harvard’s flagship status as an institution of excellence obligates me, as a higher education laborer and historian, to mull over its findings and recommendations.

The Preface (p. v-vi) states: “The ambition of the program of general education . . . in this report is to enable undergraduates to put all the learning they are doing at Harvard, outside as well as inside the classroom, in the context of the people they will be and the lives they will lead after college.” I think this is an admirable principal to follow, except that I might have changed the last clause to say “in the context of the people [they hope to] be and the lives they [expect to] lead after college.”

The Report’s Preface goes on to say: “General education is one distinct component of a liberal education, and it is effective only when the other components of the undergraduate experience are working in concert with it.” Here the Report missed, in its crucial opening, an opportunity to reinforce that liberal education is an ongoing, lifelong activity. One cannot get a liberal education in college, neither from a core of general education courses nor in the context of one’s entire collegiate experience. All any college liberal arts course can hope to do, whether at Harvard or in a high school AP setting, is begin the process. A liberal education requires practice, with success and failure, in the context of one’s work and home world. As Aristotle noted, it’s the instillation of the notion of paideia.

To their credit, the Report’s authors do hint at this in the first second paragraphs of page one. Page one begins the introductory section, “The Reason For General Education.” The second paragraph of that section begins: “A liberal education is also a preparation for the rest of life.” It continues by noting that “the skills and habits of mind they acquire in the process [will] shape the lives they will lead after . . . the academy.” This is means that one’s liberal education applies all through the rest of the students’ lives. So, again, I wish they’d used a phrase analogous to “the process of lifelong learning.”

But then the authors backtrack. Beginning the third paragraph they write: “A liberal education is useful. This does not mean that its purpose is to train students for their professions or to give them a guide to life after college.” I understand the part about training, but clause after the “or” is antithetical to a liberal education. If it’s not useful, then it’s not an ‘art’ in the sense that term is used in the phrase ‘liberal arts.’ This is clearly contradictory, and the clause is not in sync with the rest of the introductory section.

The Report also asserts that “the aim of liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves” (p. 1-2). I couldn’t agree more. The authors continue: “Liberal education is vital because professional schools do not teach these things, employers do not teach them, and even most academic graduate programs do not teach them. Those institutions deliberalize students: they train them to think as professionals.” Another way of saying this is to argue that professional and graduate programs indoctrinate the student into the norms of a profession. It’s an ugly word, indoctrination, but its ultimately the most precise term for the action taking place.

Finally, on page two, lifelong learning is addressed. The Report states: “The historical, theoretical, and relational perspectives that a liberal education provides can be a source of enlightenment and empowerment that will serve students well for the rest of their lives.” Bravo! But again this contradicts “the guide to life after college” clause above. And why can’t they use the word ‘philosophical’ rather than theoretical? Of course I have a hang-up on that, addressed in this post in relation to history.

Page two marks the beginning of a serious error in Harvard’s Report. The turning point is here: “The world has changed since the last time the Faculty instituted a general education curriculum. So has the state of knowledge, and so has Harvard.” We think that a general education curriculum needs to take these changes into account.” I’m going to reveal my perennialist stripes here, but no general education curriculum needs much more than a tweaking with regard to the world’s changes. For instance, getting students to learn how to type and use computers is an appropriate tweaking to the general education curriculum, as it has to do with media and communication. But that kind of change is incorporated into any first-year writing courses.

Otherwise, have the traits, foibles, virtues, vices, and needs of humans changed in the last 25 years? Has the need for good skills in the areas of grammar, rhetoric, logic, history, literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science changed much in the last 50 years? If not, and if these are the skills of the liberal arts, then why change the general education curriculum?

The only real reason to change a liberal arts program is if it is found to be inadequate in teaching the liberal arts just cited. If Harvard’s students have inadequately learned critical thinking skills, then its liberal arts curriculum needs to be changed. But the changes ought to reflect an intense focus on learning grammar, rhetoric, history, literature, philosophy, logic, mathematics, and science.

Of course I do not object to using the present, or present-day circumstances, as fodder for the liberal arts. This is what the Report’s authors suggest when they argue: “Professors routinely make connections in class between what they are teaching and what is going on around us. We wish to stress how important this kind of connection can be for students.” That’s what this site is all about. And I too helped with this task in teaching history courses. But I was also quite self-conscious of the fact that I had to return from the present to teach the lifelong, liberal arts skills that are learned in studying history – attention to an event’s cause, context, relativity, and complexity. This has been elaborated here before.

In the introductory section’s conclusory paragraph, the authors state: “The role of general education . . . is to connect in an explicit way 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” (p. 2). This again basically states that they intend the liberal arts, as represented in their general education curriculum, to prepare students for lifelong learning. And, even though the curriculum needs to be changed, they believe, they do seem to believe that they’ll be teaching perennial values when the Report states: “We face the challenge of preparing our students to lead flourishing and productive lives in a world that is dramatically different from the world in which most of us grew up.” By “us,” they mean the faculty and the Report’s authors. But I believe they think the general education will instill perennial critical thinking skills.

Here are the goals of the curriculum (p. 5-6):

1. “General education prepares students for civic engagement;”
2. “General education teaches students to understand themselves as products of – and participants in – traditions of art, ideas, and values;”
3. “General education prepares students to respond critically and constructively to change;”
4. “General education develops students’ understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do.”

To meet these goals, students must take courses in eight general categories (listed on p. 7) – accompanied by abbreviated course descriptions:

1. “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding” – This means developing in students an “aesthetic responsiveness and . . . ability to interpret forms of cultural expression – literary or religious texts, paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, film, dance, [and the] decorative arts” (p. 10);
2. “Culture and Belief” – This involves putting the works produced above “in context – to see how social, political, religious, and economic, and cross-cultural conditions shape the production and reception of ideas and works of art. . . . To learn about the ways in which cultures and beliefs mediate people’s understanding of themselves and the world” (p. 11);
3. “Empirical Reasoning” – The Report defines this as helping “students learn how to make decisions and draw inferences in matters . . . that involve the evaluation of empirical data. [These courses] teach students how to gather and assess information, weigh evidence, understand estimates of probabilities, etc.” (p. 12);
4. “Ethical Reasoning” – “Courses in [this category] teach students to reason in a principled way about moral and political beliefs and practices, and to deliberate and assess claims for themselves about ethical issues. [They] will examine competing conceptions and theories of liberty, justice, equality, democracy, rights, obligations, the good life, etc.” (p. 13);
5. “Science of Living Systems” – These courses will “teach central facts and concepts in the life sciences and engineering and relate them to life outside of the classroom or laboratory.” The courses will “introduce students to key concepts, facts, and theories relevant to living systems” (p. 14);
6. “Science of the Physical Universe” – Much of the structure of this category is similar to that in “Science of Living Systems.” Courses on the physical universe will “equip students to understand new discoveries and conceptual breakthroughs that will be made in the years after they graduate” (p. 16);
7. “Societies of the World” – An “aim” of these courses is “to help students overcome . . . parochialism by acquainting them with values, customs, and institutions that differ from their own, and by helping them to understand how different beliefs, behaviors, and ways of organizing society come into being” (p. 16-17);
8. “The United States in the World” – “Courses [here]. . . examine American social, political, legal, and economic practices and institutions, and they make connections between the United States and societies elsewhere. These courses should challenge the assumptions with which many students come to college – about what it means to be an American, about the persistence and diversity of American values, about the relations among different groups within the United States” (p. 17).

The Report also advocates for ninth category, one related to “activity-based learning,” but do not list it as a required category within the General Education curriculum. This described in full in section IV (p. 19-20).

Pedagogy is also addressed by the Report. The thrust of that paragraph is not the elimination of large lecture courses, but rather the additional institution of more participatory practices, primarily through question-and-answer sessions (p. 9).

Pages 21-23 address implementation at Harvard, but I’m not concerned with those technicalities here.

The Report’s conclusion (p. 25) contains some interesting nuggets. To me this statement was particularly striking: The new program “emphasizes subject matter, rather than academic disciplines, and it seeks to inspire lifelong interest in that subject matter with a pedagogy that relates material studied in the classroom to issues and problems of wide concern to undergraduates.” You might think that I’m going to comment again on the “lifelong” learning aspect of the liberal arts, but I’m more concerned with the “subject matter” versus “disciplines” distinction.

That distinction seems to either avoid the realities of academia (i.e. turf wars), or attempts to accommodate all of the interdisciplinary movements in the academy. It seems to be more of a concession to university politics than an acknowledgment that the old disciplines may be false or inadequate organizing principles. The distinction is an attempt to reorganize the academy and its twentieth-century disciplines without explicitly being hierarchical. It’s clear upon reading the listing on page 7, of the 8 categories above, that philosophy, literature, the fine arts, the natural sciences, history, and political science are important.

Perhaps that is precisely one of the two real impacts or lessons the Report? The other is the notion of making materials relevant to students. But on the first, the Report’s authors essentially assert that we academics need to acknowledge the inadequacies of department organization in U.S. universities, at least as they have developed over the twentieth century. Looking at the world through the lenses of literature, fine arts, history, natural sciences, history, philosophy, and politics neither engages the student nor adequately reflects life as we know it.

But philosophy could, in a way, be excluded from these inadequate organizations. Of course by this I don’t mean professional philosophy. The professionalization of that subject has removed philosophy from common discussion among citizens. But it’s philosophical thinking that enabled the Report’s recommendations for reorganization. Philosophy, therefore, maintains an ability structure our knowledge into ever more useful categories. Of course some of the same transcendent things can be said of history or literature. The Report just recommends, for instance, a new way of thinking about history. The Report attempts to move beyond chronology and into thematic development, as well as application to the present. Our thought about the old subject, history, is simply being restructured.

Are the old ways of organizing inadequate for higher education? Are the twentieth century’s academic disciplines no longer good enough for students? I think they are good enough, so long as they’re taught appropriately. With that, it should be reiterated that the Report asks instructors to make more concerted attempts to relate their subject matter to new developments. This isn’t such a bad thing. – TL

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