ANOTHER GENERATION OF GENERAL EDUCATION

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1 ANOTHER GENERATION OF GENERAL EDUCATION Peter K. Bol Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations I was asked to set forth some personal reflections rather than to summarize the report of the working group on general education of which I was co-chair. These views are my own but have been formed through the discussions of the working group. If it is true that curriculum reform happens once in a generation, for most of us it is an opportunity that we will meet only once in our careers. What are we going to make of it? There are three areas where structural change seems possible. Concentrations, a twentiethcentury invention, take up about half of a student s course load over four years, given the tendency to take courses related to the field beyond requirements. Concentrations are justified by the recognition, which came to be established in higher education by the end of the nineteenth century, that the progress of knowledge depends on specialization. Even if there is not a necessary connection between concentration choice and career, by concentrating students learn something of a discipline and thus become aware of the most important justification of the modern research university. Changes in the content of concentrations can be left up to those who know the field: the departments and committees. Electives take up about a fourth of the course load, and there appears to be nearly universal support for increasing them, primarily by limiting overall concentration requirements. Some worry that a lower concentration cap will harm student progress; I would be more worried if it undermines the conviction that knowledge is something that we create through cumulative learning in a discipline, that is, in an evolving tradition of assumptions, knowledge, protocols, interpretations, and questions. That leaves us with general education, in recent times about one-fourth of the student course load. There continues to be support for some form of a general education requirement at Harvard for practical reasons (without it we would put an even greater pressure on advising) and for intellectual reasons (there are some things we think all students should work at and reflect upon). I. The Problem of General Education Today general education is a subset of the curriculum, but before there were electives and concentrations the curriculum was general education. In fact, for much of history the final stages of education involved a common curriculum that was meant to complete the moral and intellectual formation of the elite. A special general education curriculum in universities in the US can be seen as a reaction to the rise of specialization, but a reaction prompted by an older sense of education as a moral enterprise. We see this at Harvard in 1945 with the idea that general education should contribute to the formation of good citizens for a free world. It schooled students in some of the literary, ethical, political, and institutional traditions of our civilization (for it was the COPYRIGHT 2004 BY PETER K. BOL

2 2 another generation of general education source of the model for a free world) but also in science and technology (for they were fundamental to modern progress and set our civilization apart). Many see a general education requirement as the guarantor of breadth (versus the concentrations depth ). I am not sure that breadth suffices as an end in itself, although I believe that broadening our horizons is a good. In Harvard s case such breadth as the general education of 1945 offered was largely within a notion of Western civilization and was in service of a higher purpose: creating good citizens. In other words, the idea that students should be broadly educated was justified by the belief that they would be better people for it. The 1978 Core Curriculum was also concerned with the intellectual and moral formation of students, but defined the essentials quite differently, as ways of knowing. This was a far more universal claim than that of 1945, for it was now asserted that these ways of knowing could be applied to all people and all times, and that an educated person should be cognizant of them. It was not breadth but a sense of what was truly important that provided the intellectual justification for general education, although breadth did guide the administration of the requirement by requiring distance from the concentration. It is easy enough to criticize the 1945 and 1978 programs. Faculty generally have wanted more courses, or at least the courses they themselves teach, to count toward a requirement, something that undermines the rationale for a set curriculum and the distinction between general education courses and departmental offerings. In 1945 there were too few categories but in 1978 there were too many. The lecture format was applied to all subjects when other styles might have been more appropriate. Excluding surveys and great books courses in 1978 allowed topicality to trump importance of content. And so on. Yet I suspect that most of us still believe that education ought to matter to being good citizens and that different disciplines have different questions and methods. To change our general education requirement does not deny the value of either of these. But if we are asking ourselves what we would most like to do for the next two or three decades, I think we have to ask ourselves what our goals and justifications are and what the relationship between our ends and our means will be. It is difficult to reach consensus on matters of philosophy, but the discussion is hard to avoid. Those colleges that have adopted a distribution requirement pegged to the administrative structure (for example, three each in humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences) generally add subcategories, presumably to keep students from taking all their divisional courses in a single department. Others create linkages between courses, requiring an introductory course and a more advanced course. Still others have elaborate systems to ensure that students take both area courses and methodology courses. Aside from those places which have no general education requirement, most colleges recognize that a distribution requirement must serve both some notion of general education and the desire of faculty outside of large concentrations that a distribution requirement ensure that they have the chance to teach undergraduates. Even the simplest distribution requirement involves a discussion of categories, and any discussion of categories must bring us back to the question of what we think is important. We are requiring students to take courses outside of what they perceive to be their areas of interest and talent. If there is to be a general education requirement, we will have to have categories and we will need to explain why these categories serve the purposes we think general education should serve.

3 Peter K. Bol 3 II. A Rationale for General Education There are many principles which have been put forward as the one principle that can provide the rationale for general education. All of these principles have considerable merit but I am not sure any single one suffices as the sole guiding principle from which to deduce a program in general education. Some say general education should provide students with the essential knowledge that every educated person should have. Knowledge goes beyond information; it includes the assumptions our understandings rest upon, the questions we think are important to ask, and a sense of what we do not know or understand. Some hold that general education trains students in those skills writing, oral expression, quantitative reasoning, logical argumentation, and careful reading, for example that are essential to the acquisition, communication, and generation of new knowledge. Some hold that general education should introduce the great traditions of a civilization or a field within it, by introducing major concepts, formative moments, great ideas, or major works of art, literature, and philosophy. Some say that it should impart to students major ways of knowing, thus enabling them to acquire further knowledge for themselves or to discover the areas that appeal to them the most. Some see general education as offering students common intellectual experiences, providing them with bodies of knowledge that can serve both students and teachers as common points of reference in the intellectual life of the university. And some hold that general education should encourage intellectual curiosity and help students develop a profound sense of the rewards of learning. It is hard to disagree: we ought to encourage curiosity; provide common learning experiences and opportunities to share one s reflections with others; develop an array of courses that will illustrate ways of knowing and evaluating; teach important skills and competencies; learn to appreciate multiple traditions of knowledge and culture; and acquire the most important knowledge in various fields. All these are part of education, and having students here for four years gives us an opportunity to help them advance on all fronts, but it does seem to be rather a lot to expect of eight to ten courses in a general education requirement, and of the students in them. What, in the end, do we want to accomplish with a four-year liberal arts education for a body of students who will for the most part go on to professional rather than academic careers? Do we think we can ever guarantee that general education will produce a certain product, inculcate certain values, or train people in certain skills? If not, what can it do? In practice, it can do what a liberal arts education has always done: it can provide occasions for learning and thinking about things we think we all would benefit by learning and thinking about. But what are those things? And how is our identification of them related to the divisions, departments, disciplines, and areas with which students organize their concentrations and faculty, their teaching and research? One answer, a considered answer but not the only possible answer, is that general education can provide us with occasions for thinking about the ways in which we are connected to the world around us. It can help us develop informed, critical, and thoughtful perspectives. And it can do this precisely by examining the nature of our connections to the world in ways that bear real, but not narrow and limiting, connections to the way in which we organize our faculty.

4 4 another generation of general education III. Categories and Courses If the goal of general education is to provide opportunities to think about these kinds of connections, then some general categories are straightforward: 1. We live in social, economic, and political systems that have changed through time and vary over space. These can be thought about historically, in terms of national narratives, but also comparatively (and thus with social science methodologies). This area can branch out to include the interaction between human society and the environment, the origins of the natural world and the human species, etc. 2. We live with and through cultural forms languages and aural and visual cultures. There are classic works of literature, art, and music in all longlasting civilizations, but there are also the everyday cultural forms of popular culture. Cultural forms have been theorized at various points since ancient times, including today. This area would include most of the current humanities departments as well as cultural anthropology, but also the biology and psychology of perception. 3. We live with ideas about individual and community what constitutes the self, what are our obligations toward others, what justifies the claims of the community on the individual, how should it be organized. Moral and political philosophy and religion are most obviously part of this, but so are issues such as gender studies, biology, economics, anthropology, and psychology. 4. We are biological beings and part of living systems, the study of which is now going through a revolution in concept and method. 5. We live in a physical universe that operates according to laws we do not control. These five areas encompass much of faculty teaching and research, but they certainly will be seen to leave important things out where, for example, would we treat the ways in which technologies have facilitated and constrained human activity? They have a certain fit with academic departments but do not correspond exactly. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A world historical perspective on political, social, and economic systems has a comparative social science orientation, relies on narrative histories as well. The way we think about our physical environment is something that the physical sciences do speak to, but it is also of concern to some in literary studies and political science. Humanists study cultural representation, but sociologists and anthropologists work on them as well. Gender studies speaks to ideas about the self, but so do biology and psychology. Philosophers have theories of value, and so do economists. Both physical and life scientists are concerned with molecular structures. The connections we have to the world around us are too important to let the discussion of them become the exclusive property of any one department or division. But where are the courses that would fill these categories? Some of them do exist in the current Core and in the departments, but the premise of general education since 1945 has been that certain courses have to be created for the purpose of education. This is true for courses within a discipline as well, particularly in vertically-integrated disciplines. Here there is something of a

5 Peter K. Bol 5 disconnect between the students and faculty. Faculty members are specialists in their own fields, whereas most students arrive at college, and will leave, as generalists in terms of their academic interests. Specialization is good for the advancement of knowledge, but from the perspective of the generalist specialization leads to both greater fragmentation and greater inaccessibility. Harvard is a research university but it is also an institution that aims to educate young people for four years between leaving the family and beginning independent careers. If we as a faculty of specialists are to be engaged in undergraduate education and make our advances in knowledge part of undergraduate education then we must translate what we have learned into formats accessible to the generalist by situating it in broader contexts. In short we need to develop a series of integrative courses that would translate specialized knowledge into accessible formats, show how it is related to other areas of knowledge, and explaining why it matters. Such courses make serious demands on the faculty, but they answer to what surveys of our students suggest is a common desire among students to be given a broad and comprehensive picture of things. Integrative courses in each of these five fields would tie together several fields of inquiry and provide students with grounding in important areas of knowledge and reflection independent of their professional aspirations and fields of specialization. Such courses would teach perspectives on the world we share, extend the horizons of both teachers and students, and provide a common intellectual experience. They would also provide a larger context for understanding and interpreting the more specialized knowledge studied in the field of concentration; introduce bodies of knowledge, concepts, and major texts; illustrate different ways of knowing; and provide occasions for introducing and reinforcing useful critical skills in reasoning and expression. IV. Some Tensions Integration and interdisciplinarity. Integrative courses are interdisciplinary courses, in that they bring multiple disciplines to bear on large topics. But this is not the same as making interdisciplinarity the point. A course on the political reforms in China in the eleventh century could draw together literature, art, political and intellectual history, economics, geography, climatology, and history of science. For those not specializing in Chinese history, the value of such a course would lie less in the topic than in the method, that is, in learning to see how things are connected to each other. However, it strikes me as being less useful in a general education curriculum than a course which drew on the same disciplines and examined large scale change on the Eurasian landmass over the last several thousand years. Such a course might provide the context for deciding whether one would want to learn more about Chinese history. That being said, it is certainly possible to imagine a general education program which took interdisciplinarity as its purpose rather than as a means. National and transnational. One striking difference between the general education of 1945 and 1978 was the shift away from the focus on Western traditions. We are better prepared to take the world as our scope in the humanities and social sciences than we were in 1978 or 1945 and this country (and our student body) has become less Atlantic than it once was. Still, the world has not developed as an integrated whole and the current process of globalization has not made local traditions and languages irrelevant. How, within a small number of courses, do we give due attention to national traditions? Can we be comparative and analytic without first requiring thorough schooling of the students in every discipline and tradition? Standardization and experimentation. Setting the specific goals in each of the five areas and designing integrative courses ought to be left up to conclaves of faculty interested in those areas. Let us assume that a general education requirement would have these five categories and require two courses in each category. Is it necessary that each area rely on the lecture course?

6 6 another generation of general education Could we encourage experimenting with different formats? Could requirements in courses on cultural forms require one of a few lecture courses on cultural theory followed by one of a wide variety of seminars on literature, music, or art in one or more cultural traditions? In the sciences would it be possible to offer the same course at different levels for students with different levels of preparation? Will the lack of standardization between areas make it too complicated for students to figure out? Uniformity and flexibility. If these broad, carefully designed, integrative courses are a good thing, why not require them of all students? Should we allow students to meet the requirement by choosing from a variety of courses that, while of the appropriate category, are likely to be less broad in scope? Will we be better off if students only take large integrative courses and avoid the departments outside of the concentration? I assume that we are all better off when students take courses because they choose to, not because they have to. This means, however, that courses which have been carefully designed and prepared may not find an audience. But if students do choose to take a course designed for the purposes of general education, they should do so because it delivers what it promises, not because it is an easy way to fulfill a requirement. It would be a good thing if we could get away from the view that courses taken to meet general education requirements should not be demanding. Subject and theory. In reading the descriptions of general education science requirements at various places I have been struck that some focus on the scientists themselves, so that the goal is to teach students what scientists do and how they think, and some focus on what scientists have concluded about a subject and why it matters. This tension between the idea of a subject in itself and the ways in which we think about the subject would seem to be true in the humanities and social sciences as well. How can we strike a balance between introducing what we have concluded, and treating it as fact, and draw attention to the ways in which knowledge depends on theory and subjects are understood in disciplinary contexts?

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