Casual critics say college students can spend too much time with their heads in the clouds. John Huth, the Donner Professor of Science in Harvard’s Department of Physics, agrees. To bring undergraduates back to earth, Huth created “Primitive Navigation,” a course that teaches them to use nature’s signposts to get from place to place. Students learn to navigate the campus using the type of sun compass that the Vikings relied on; to calculate distance by measuring their own steps, as the ancient Romans did; and to understand the movement of celestial bodies and the change of seasons in elemental ways.

“In this course, students not only learn about science in the classroom, but also by going out and doing things,” Huth said recently. “We took them to the roof of the Science Center and had them identify the major stars. They watched the movement over the course of an hour to try and get that motion ingrained. It gives the knowledge meaning.”

Huth’s course is part of Harvard’s Program in General Education, popularly known as Gen Ed, which tries to connect what students learn at the College with the lives they’ll lead after graduation. A hit with students and faculty, Gen Ed has expanded to more than 400 courses since its launch in 2009, and now includes some of the most popular classes on campus, “Primitive Navigation” among them. The reasons for the program’s early success are no mystery. Gen Ed offers innovative courses, taught by leading faculty, to small numbers of students.

Gary Feldman, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, gives a train demonstration in the Science Center. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

“We launched the Program in General Education in order to help students connect academic modes of thought to the nonacademic lives that most of them will lead, and to do so in more explicit ways than we have done in the past,” said College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds. “The curriculum exposes undergraduates to the wide range of ideas and knowledge available here at one of the world’s leading research universities. It provides students with the ability to think critically and to see a problem from many different perspectives. And we believe it helps students to become lifelong learners who will always be interested in the world around them.”

A deeper appreciation of the surrounding environment and a robust intellectual curiosity are two of Gen Ed’s goals. But it turns out that a liberal arts education is also precisely the type of workout that a young adult’s brain needs in order to develop critical faculties such as judgment and self-control. And the abilities to learn and think critically are skills that business leaders increasingly seek in 21st-century employees.

Students get a feel for the brain during a science of living systems course. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

The habits of the mind

In many ways, “Primitive Navigation” exemplifies the aims of the Gen Ed curriculum. The course purposely disorients students by presenting the familiar in fresh ways; it challenges them to look closely to discover what’s going on behind the appearance of things; then it gives students the tools to find their way again.

“The curriculum is designed to create and instill certain habits of mind, certain ways of looking at the world that students can take with them wherever they go,” Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education and Harry Austryn Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies, said when Gen Ed was launched. “We recognize that most students will not be academics. But they will be citizens who are expected to participate in civic debate in an intelligent and informed way.”

Harvard undergraduates are required to take at least one Gen Ed course in each of eight study areas: aesthetic and interpretive understanding; culture and belief; empirical and mathematical reasoning; ethical reasoning; science of living systems; science of the physical universe; societies of the world; and the United States in the world.

One of the ongoing challenges for the General Education curriculum is the need to develop genuinely new, innovative courses.
— Professor Allan M. Brandt, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

A primary goal of the classes, according to Louis Menand, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language and co-chair of the Task Force on General Education, is to develop in students an awareness of the ideas and realities that lay behind the appearance of things.

“During my time on the task force, I heard several people say ‘It’s all about appearance and reality,’ ” Menand said. “That’s really what we do here. It’s about showing people that the way things seem is not the way they completely are, and giving students the knowledge and skills to see that on their own. This is true of pretty much every discipline.”

Abigail Lipson, director of Harvard’s Bureau of Study Counsel, said the skills that Harvard’s curriculum tries to develop in students — critical thinking, the ability look at problems from different perspectives, and to evaluate one’s own actions — are also the capacities that the young adult brain is trying to build.

“For example, in college we develop the ability to recognize, name, and articulate emotions and use them for information rather than simply a driving force,” she said. “A liberal arts education provides a context for exploring and exercising those kinds of capacities. It’s just what your brain needs.”

Lipson pointed to a 2005 article in the Mental Health Letter of Harvard Medical School that cited late adolescence as a time when reasoning and judgment evolve in a way that is “crucial to emotional learning and high-level self-regulation.” The college years are the cognitive — as well as the educational — opportunity for a disciplined adult mind to emerge.

Gen Ed aims to prepare students for a life of change and complexity, rather than a specific career, a plus in an ever-changing economy, and a goal that contrasts with some educational trends emphasizing vocational training. In 2006, the American Association of Colleges and Universities commissioned a poll that asked business executives from hundreds of midsized firms, “How should college prepare students to succeed in today’s global economy?” When surveyors described a “particular approach to a four-year education,” one that provided “broad knowledge in a variety of areas of study” and that “helps students develop … intellectual and practical skills … such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills,” 95 percent of employers said it was either “very important” or “fairly important” that colleges provide this type of education.

“Most successful people in the business world will tell you about the importance of five things,” said Richard J. Light, Carl H. Pforzheimer Jr. Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the book “Making the Most of College.”

“These are the ability to synthesize information; the skill of writing extraordinarily well; the ability to do research on many different topics; the ability to speak at least one foreign language (preferably more); and an understanding of other cultures. Where else but at a college like Harvard that offers a serious liberal education — and pushes undergraduates very hard — can a student really learn all those ways of thinking?”

Interdisciplinary innovation

Gen Ed classes are taught by scholars from nearly every faculty at Harvard, including the Business School, the Law School, the Medical School, the Kennedy School, and the School of Public Health. Stephanie Kenen, associate dean of undergraduate education and administrative director of the Program in General Education, said the opportunity to create courses that draw from different areas and to teach interested, enthusiastic young students already has attracted some of the University’s brightest scholars to Gen Ed.

Students practice during the Gen Ed course “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding.” Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

“Once the program launched, faculty across campus began to see opportunities for new kinds of teaching and interdisciplinary work,” she said. “We began to see more courses being proposed. The curriculum provides opportunities and support for course topics that might not fit in particular Schools or departments.”

History, archaeology, and cultural studies come together in “Pyramid Schemes,” a course that explores the archaeological history of ancient Egypt. Course leader Peter Der Manuelian, Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology, said it is both challenging and rewarding to design a rigorous curriculum that is not too esoteric for the generalist.

“There is nothing like sharing the passion for one’s field with 170 interested undergraduates,” he said. “I enjoy watching students get excited about new pyramid construction theories, ancient religious schisms, explanations for the rise of complex society, and the mysteries of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic grammar. Long ago, I learned that to focus only on the narrow confines of one’s discipline can lead to diminished interest levels across the board.”

Students give Manuelian’s course high marks, and have made it one of the most popular Gen Ed offerings. Margaret Geoga ’12 said the course combines visits to area museums with the innovative use of technology to give students a deeper understanding of what ancient Egypt was like.

“The technology turned out to be one of the best features of the class,” she said. “For example, the 3-D tour of Giza in the Visualization Center gave us an understanding of how all the monuments and tombs relate to each other physically that photos simply cannot provide.”

College officials are working to keep the Gen Ed curriculum vibrant, and point to the dramatic expansion of course offerings over the last two years. When the program launched in 2009, 238 classes had been approved for the program; by this fall, the number had grown to 416. Many are new courses, and others that were offered previously have been recast with a Gen Ed perspective.

“We want a curriculum that evolves with our students, so we have to refresh and renew it on an ongoing basis,” said Kenen. “Some courses are constructed in such a way as to retain their suitability for the program without much change over time. Others may not have as long a shelf life.”

Graduating to the future

To help meet the demand for new and engaging Gen Ed courses down the road, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences created the Graduate Seminars in General Education (GSGE). The brainchild of Professor Allan M. Brandt, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, GSGE pairs faculty with graduate students in studying a topic at an advanced level and in creating an undergraduate course. Graduate students work on course themes, design, and pedagogy. If all goes well, the teaching fellows for a new Gen Ed course will be the same people who helped to design it.

“One of the ongoing challenges for the General Education curriculum is the need to develop genuinely new, innovative courses,” Brandt said. “The idea of making the course development process itself into a seminar for graduate students seemed like a natural win. It allows for a scenario in which faculty members set aside dedicated time for course development, benefiting from the intelligence and energy of graduate students in the process. And graduate students become engaged in substantive ways, helping to develop their own instructional and pedagogic abilities.”

Officials will continue to tweak Gen Ed in the years to come. Kenen said her group wants to make sure that the next three years go as smoothly as the past two. They will then evaluate the program, and move ahead.

“We want to make sure that we have enough — and the correct — courses in each area,” she said. “Right now, we’re also starting to ask, ‘How would we evaluate the curriculum?’ Things have gone remarkably well over the past two years, especially when you consider that we launched Gen Ed in the midst of the University’s financial crisis. We’ll take a look at where we are sometime around the five-year mark.”

In the interim, Kenen directs anyone curious about the program — or just in need of a quick shot of general knowledge — to the rather addictive series of trailers created for many of Gen Ed’s courses. There, a visitor can get a lesson on the ways that Jews and Christians interpret the Bible; learn about the development of children’s brains; and contemplate the circumstances of the winners and losers in the global economy, all in five minutes or less.

“Each short video is a snapshot of a course,” Kenen said. “Faculty members give a little introduction to the class, its aims, and how it meets the goals of Gen Ed. It’s a great way for parents, students, and others to find out about offerings in the curriculum.”

Sampling Harvard, in essays

It is sometimes said that youth is wasted on the young. It also could be said that college sometimes is wasted on students, and that only after graduating does a former student come to appreciate learning. For those wishing to revisit the college classroom, or those who never had the opportunity, there is “The Harvard Sampler: Liberal Education for the Twenty-First Century.”

In the spirit of the General Education curriculum, this book of essays gives a taste of the modern Harvard curriculum. The authors, who are among the University’s most respected faculty members, invite visitors to explore subjects as diverse as religious literacy and Islam, liberty and security in cyberspace, medical science and epidemiology, energy resources, evolution, morality, human rights, global history, the dark side of the American Revolution, American literature and the environment, interracial literature, and the human mind.

The instructors, who include such premier scholars as Steven Pinker, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Harry R. Lewis, summarize key developments in their fields in ways that both entertain and edify.