Phi Beta Cons

General Education at Harvard

“Students…need to have an understanding of American history, American institutions, and American values; they also need to appreciate the place of those institutions and values in a shifting global context.”
Those are the words, believe it or not, of Harvard’s Task Force on General Education, the committee of professors charged with revising the university’s antiquated Core Curriculum.
Under the present system, students take a hodgepodge of courses that ostensibly teach “approaches to knowledge” in various disciplines, rather than the knowledge itself. What this has practically meant is that “Gendered Communities of North Africa” and “Constructing the Samurai” could be — and not too infrequently are — the only history classes a Harvard grad ends up taking.
The new proposal, released today, calls for the creation of seven fields, in which all students would be required to take one course. Alongside Life and Physical Sciences, those fields are: Cultural Traditions and Cultural Change, The Ethical Life, The United States, Societies of the World, and Reason and Faith.
Some of these do sound flaky and prone to abuse — a good bellwether of this is whether a term like “cultural” appears with superfluous frequency. I’m partially reassured, however, by the committee’s insistence that “general education courses within these areas should present a broad range of material, rather than focus in depth on a single topic or a small number of texts.” And it’s certainly good news for those of us who feared a Harvard education would become even more obscure.
It won’t be easy sailing for the proposal, however, which ultimately must be adopted — and can be amended — by the full Faculty. Professor of Philosophy Alison Simmons, one of the committee’s members, has already labelled the “Reason and Faith” category the proposal’s “most vulnerable” part.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.


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