Campus & Community

General Education Task Force issues final report

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The Task Force on General Education of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University has issued its final report, in which it recommends a new program to replace the Core Curriculum that was introduced in the late 1970s. In the words of the task force: “It is Harvard’s mission to help students to lead flourishing and productive lives by providing a general education curriculum that is responsive to the conditions of the 21st century. General education is the place where students are brought to understand how everything that we teach in the arts and sciences relates to their lives and to the world that they will confront. General education is the public face of liberal education.”

The program proposed is consistent with past general education programs at Harvard: It prescribes a set of requirements and calls for a set of extra-departmental courses, rather than advocates that students have free range across existing departmental offerings in the form of an open distribution system. “Since 1945,” the authors state, “the Harvard Faculty has believed in the importance of taking a stand on the question of what students need to learn. General education is a statement about why a liberal education matters.”

The report proposes a program that emphasizes subjects, rather than academic disciplines, and that seeks to inspire lifelong interest in those subjects by relating material studied in the classroom to issues and problems of wide concern to undergraduates. Students would be required to take a course in each of the following areas.

  • Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding: to help students develop aesthetic responsiveness and the ability to interpret forms of cultural expression.
  • Culture and Belief: to introduce students to ideas, art, and religion in the context of the social, political, religious, economic, and cross-cultural conditions that shape their production and reception.
  • Empirical Reasoning: to help students learn how to make decisions and draw inferences that involve the evaluation of empirical data and how to gather and assess information, weigh evidence, estimate probabilities, and solve problems with the data available.
  • Ethical Reasoning: to 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.
  • Science of Living Systems: to teach students central concepts and facts related to understanding life – its origins, and the way it changes and is changed by the environment.
  • Science of the Physical Universe: to teach students central facts and concepts in the physical sciences and related engineering, and to relate them to issues that students will encounter in their daily lives.
  • Societies of the World: to acquaint students with values, customs, and institutions that differ from their own, and to help them understand how different beliefs, behaviors, and ways of organizing society come into being.
  • The United States in the World: to teach American social, economic, and political practices and institutions, and make connections between the United States and societies elsewhere.Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles said, “This fine report resolves the often conflicting desiderata for programs of general education. Its categories are both thoughtfully defined and clearly motivated. The impressive new program proposed will provide an experience that is comprehensive without being diffuse, and that strengthens the link between life and learning in a way that will greatly benefit our students. I am grateful to the task force for its tremendous hard work, its responsiveness to the Faculty, and for this eloquently persuasive final report.”

Interim Harvard President Derek Bok said, “I congratulate the task force for a fine report. The members have done an excellent job of listening to their colleagues and crafting a thoughtful and coherent structure to further the aims of a strong undergraduate education.”

The task force was convened last spring, worked through the summer, and issued a preliminary report in October 2006. Following that, the task force continued to consult with many groups of faculty and students, with many departments, as well as with numerous individuals, resulting in this final report.

The report, distributed to the Faculty Wednesday (Feb. 7), will be discussed at the full FAS faculty meeting on Feb. 13. After that, the Faculty will decide on how and when to put the proposals into effect.