This fall, Harvard College will launch a new General Education (Gen Ed) program for undergraduates. The program features 160 courses, including some that have been restructured and many new ones. Professors Suzannah Clark and Amy Wagers, co-chairs of the Standing Committee on General Education, worked to revise the program, which begins this fall under Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh. The Gazette talked to Claybaugh for a preview of what the new Gen Ed will look like, and how she and her team arrived at this milestone.
GAZETTE: Can you give us the elevator pitch on Gen Ed, and, in particular, why the courses cross divisions?
CLAYBAUGH: The General Education program is the cornerstone of the liberal arts at Harvard. Other colleges tend to organize the liberal arts around a set of distribution requirements or a list of great works, but Harvard offers a special set of courses that show the liberal arts in action. They pose enduring questions, they frame urgent problems, and they help students see that no one discipline can answer those questions or grapple with those problems on its own. Gen Ed courses call on students to synthesize what they’re learning in their other courses and apply it to the world.
GAZETTE: What are the changes?
CLAYBAUGH: The Gen Ed program was introduced in 2008; in 2016 it was reviewed and now a renewed Gen Ed will launch this fall. In the process, the eight original Gen Ed categories were streamlined into four: Starting this fall, students will take one course each in aesthetics and culture; histories, societies, and individuals; ethics and civics; and science and technology in society. These four Gen Ed courses are now complemented by four distributional requirements. Students will also take one departmental course each in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, and the natural and applied sciences, as well as a course in quantitative reasoning with data.
Once these new requirements were in place, the Gen Ed committee had to find courses to fill them. The committee, most recently under the leadership of Suzannah [a professor of music] and Amy [co-chair of the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology], worked tirelessly to reframe existing courses and recruit new ones. And colleagues from across the FAS — and across the University — stepped up and volunteered to do this unusually demanding kind of teaching.
We want Gen Ed to be the kind of courses faculty have always dreamed of teaching — and the kind students never forget. Because of that, we’ve put together an incredible team of consultants who work with faculty to ensure that each course is as good as it can possibly be. There are curators who organize museum visits, librarians who create research guides, and specialists in assignment design and academic technology.
GAZETTE: How else has the Gen Ed program evolved over the years?
CLAYBAUGH: This isn’t the first Gen Ed at Harvard; it’s the second. The first was inaugurated in the aftermath of the Second World War, and it sought to educate students for a “free society.” With our new Gen Ed program, we seek to prepare students for global citizenship. Individual courses grapple explicitly with the global, such as Robert Lawrence and Lawrence Summers’ “The Future of Globalization” or Sunil Amrith’s “Global Gandhi.” We have a course on the Hebrew Bible, and another on the spiritual practices transmitted throughout the African diaspora. We have a course on Shakespeare, and another on anime.
GAZETTE: Among the changes to Gen Ed are new requirements for quantitative reasoning with data (QRD). What can you tell us about this change?
CLAYBAUGH: QRD courses teach students how to think critically about the data they’ll encounter in their professions and contend with in civic debates. Nothing could be more essential for 21st-century citizenship. Students will learn the computational, mathematical, and statistical techniques they need to work with data. They’ll also learn how to use those techniques in the real world, where data are imperfect and incomplete, sometimes compromised, always contingent. Finally, they’ll reflect on all the questions raised by our current uses of data — questions that are social and ethical and epistemological. We’ve identified a number of courses in an array of departments, at all levels of difficulty, that do all these things — among them, Raj Chetty’s new course in “Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems.” We know students are going to learn a lot.
GAZETTE: If you were a student, what course would you take and why?
CLAYBAUGH: That’s a great question! From time to time, when we were reviewing courses, someone would exclaim, “I wish I could take this course!” But it was always a different course for each of us, and that’s what I’d want students to understand: There’s no “best” Gen Ed courses. There are just the courses that are right for you. Students might look for courses on things they’ve always been curious about — music? food? the pyramids? Or they might look for courses that show a familiar topic in a new light, like Susanna Rinard’s course on happiness or John Hamilton’s course on security or Maya Jasanoff’s course on ancestry.