General Miseducation

January 2014

Middle school? Nope. This is Ethical Reasoning 18, one of the biggest (and biggest-name) courses at Harvard this past fall, as gushingly covered in the Atlantic (and less gushingly in the Crimson). An informal poll of some friends suggests that the average total time spent on ER 18 is about 20 hours, including lectures, sections, and the final exam. For perspective, that’s about 10% of what I spend on my elective and concentration classes.

To be clear, I don’t blame my professor, whose insightful and engaging lectures really did help to illuminate the texts we read (especially when I listend to them at double-speed the night before the final)–and I may joke but I mean this sincerely. Nor do I resent my section leader, who was doing the best she could with a bunch of sleep-deprived and checked-out slackers who hadn’t done the reading.

No, the blame lies squarely with the designers of the debacle known as the General Education curriculum. As a Harvard student, I’m required to spend eight out of thirty-two credits on courses especially vetted by a committee as “connect[ing] a student’s liberal education–that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry, rewarding in its own right–to life beyond college.” Noble ideals, maybe, but the result? A massive waste of time for everyone involved.

Here’s why: being vetted as a Gen Ed course is painful, and the requirements are strict. So it’s usually reserved for a department’s introductory courses (if any). And students can’t ask for exceptions: you simply have to take a vetted course. That means that even if you have a pre-existing interest inside one of Harvard’s Gen Ed categories, you often can’t find a Gen Ed that teaches it. For example, I would have loved to spend my Ethical Reasoning requirement studying metaethics or moral dilemmas, both of which obviously teach ethical reasoning–but, absurdly, they don’t count. Billy studied evolutionary dynamics for two semesters–one at the graduate level–but apparently he’s learned nothing about the “science of living systems” to count for credit. My roommate Rahul skipped straight into advanced microeconomics, but according to the committee it didn’t teach him anything about “the united states in the world”, even though the basic versions did.

Most ridiculous, though, is the case of my classmate Evan. He’s won first place in the Intel Science Talent Search; he’s been published in math journals; and he’s dominated the hardest math competitions in the world. Of course he passed out of the introductory math courses, so according to Harvard he still doesn’t know anything about Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning.

If your system declares arguably the country’s best young mathematician not yet capable of doing mathematical reasoning, your system is broken.

So what happens to people like me, Billy, Rahul, and Evan? We want a general education, but we have to jump through the right hoops first. So we take courses we’re not excited about. We become part of the checked-out masses that make Sanders Theater a sea of silver MacBooks if you look from the stage, and a sea of blue Facebooks if you look from behind. We skim the readings, we slack off in section, and we ruin things for the folks who are actually there because they want to be.

And at the end of the semester, we take our resentment out on our teachers, panning them in the evaluations if they assigned too much work. So it becomes a race to the bottom. The ratings, the enrollment numbers, the fame and the glory go to whoever can throw the best circus–whether through putting Harry Potter on the syllabus, bringing food to every lecture, throwing candy at students and writing on the walls, or turning the class into a cult.

What if, instead of imposing this byzantine system of paperwork and categories and choices-but-not-really-choices, Harvard treated its students like adults who can be put in charge of their own education? What if, like many other great schools, whose students come out just as well-rounded as ours (if not more), Harvard dropped its distribution requirements? Or even just broadened them to something less restrictive?

I want to get a general education! But Gen Eds do the opposite: they encourage the superficial over the deep, the easy over the challenging, the bullshit over the learning. Some of my roommates have applied for four-year Master’s degrees solely because it lets them take fewer Gen Eds. Friends and I have missed out on amazing courses because we didn’t have space in our schedules if it wasn’t a Gen Ed. The program is failing to live up to its ideals, it’s wasting everyone’s time, and it’s destroying Harvard students’ ability to get the education we want.


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Wang

I went to Chicago, which is even more enthusiastic about its core curriculum than Harvard. Chicago’s core adds up to eighteen quarters; when you need to petition the dean for a fifth class, eighteen quarters is more than a third of a four-year program.

The three important ones were humanities (HUM), social science (SOSC), and civilizations (CIV). You could easily place out of the math, science, and language. You could easily find a fluff class for your art/music/drama requirement. But you had to take HUM, you had to take SOSC, and you had to take CIV.

Actually, I do know a transfer student from Columbia who got a quarter of HUM credit for a year of Lit Hum and a semester of University Writing. I won’t argue that this was a fair trade, but it does show how highly Chicago valued HUM, SOSC, and CIV.

As you say is true at Harvard, Chicago is also picky about what satisfies the HUM and SOSC requirements. At first, HUM was just that: the one course “Introduction to Humanities.” Now there are five options. Likewise, SOSC started out as one course, “Classics of Social and Political Thought,” and over the next few decades grew to five. CIV was a bit looser, but still your options were limited.

What appears to differ between Harvard and Chicago is that at Chicago, HUM, SOSC, and CIV were respected. On the first day of “Intro to Humanities,” the professor warned us that there would be a writing assignment due every week and that we should plan our quarters accordingly. I can’t imagine people browsing the Facebook during SOSC. If you opened a laptop during class “to take notes”, you were expected to post your notes afterward.

This is going to sound snobby even though I don’t meant it that way, but the idea of professors trying to attract students with popular fiction and candy is kind of weird. That professor who assigned a paper every week? His class had twenty students on a waiting list. People just accepted that the core was this huge onerous thing that would dominate your life for those quarters, and keep you out of half the interesting electives you would otherwise take, and yet be absolutely worth every hour.

What you describe of Harvard’s general education requirements sounds more like the science side of the Chicago core. Unlike HUM, SOSC, and CIV, nobody had any illusions that they were going to remember for years afterward the material of “Chemistry in the Atmosphere.” That class was where people browsed the Facebook, and crammed for the final, and rated the professors poorly for assigning homework. But at least you could easily place out of those.

I suspect a lot of the difference between HUM, SOSC, and CIV on the one hand and core science on the other comes down to how much the students respected the course. Chicago is good at selecting (or attracting) people who already think dead white men are important. It is much less good at selecting people who think basic science is important, and the ones it gets, it mostly places out.

Not to claim, of course, that Harvard students do not respect ethical reasoning the subject, but perhaps they have come not to respect Ethical Reasoning the course?

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Wang

Heh. Speaking of remembering things from core classes for years afterward, my framing of HUM, SOSC, and CIV versus the sciences is the division described in C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures.” If you haven’t read it already, you should. It’s short and still accurate.

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Levi Roth

For what it’s worth, Phil 173 now counts for Ethical Reasoning.

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Leah

I went to Hopkins, which has much looser distribution requirements. Almost every class has one or more letter designations associated with it. The options were S,N,H,Q,E: Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Humanities, Quantitative (math), Engineering.

The university requires some number of each, and each department translates that into their major requirements (so the CS requirements don’t mention E because we have enough, and tell us how many more Q credits we need after our required classes).

Every class is reviewed by some committee to decide what letters it gets. Every class, from intro to upper-level, is designated with some letter(s). Cognitive Science classes, for example, often manage to have all of S,N,H.

It sounds like coming up with a process that they can apply to every course, by default, would greatly expand your Gen Ed. options.

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Anonymous

As a recent graduate, who has some familiarity with the specifics you discuss, I agree with some complaints and disagree with others.

What is fair is that geneds are often easy, cheap, and filled with people who are not really interested. Furthermore, there are some courses that would reasonably count for general education credit, but do not.

A couple of points that stand out as disingenuous to me: first, “students can’t ask for exceptions,” and second, that most students would actually bother to go out and acquire a general education if the system didn’t force them to.

You can in fact apply for general education credit for courses retroactively, and this happens pretty frequently. The fact that graduate-level classes haven’t been approved for general education credit has more to do with the scarcity of freshmen skipping straight into higher-level work, than the Gen Ed program’s negligence.

By the way, the specific cases you mention are not as compelling as you make them sound. I took both Ec1011a and Ec10, and while the former was more mathematically advanced, it had much less to do with “United States in the World” in the latter. Similarly, I would not be surprised Mathematical Evolutionary Dynamics mentioned anything about the central dogma, or even how a cell works.

I also feel fairly confident in asserting that most of these math/science types would take fewer humanities classes if they could.

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Ben

@Levi: it’s too late for me, but that’s good to know, thanks!

@Anonymous:

You can in fact apply for general education credit for courses retroactively, and this happens pretty frequently.

Citation? As far as I know you can only apply for credit if you took a course which later became a gen ed. Which is almost useless if you do any reasonable amount of planning ahead.

The fact that graduate-level classes haven’t been approved for general education credit has more to do with the scarcity of freshmen skipping straight into higher-level work, than the Gen Ed program’s negligence.

The problem’s not just graduate-level classes. It’s almost all nontrivial classes. This is a problem for maybe 20% of my friends. Anecdotal, but I wouldn’t call that “scarce”.

By the way, the specific cases you mention are not as compelling as you make them sound. I took both Ec1011a and Ec10, and while the former was more mathematically advanced, it had much less to do with “United States in the World” in the latter.

I haven’t taken it, so I can’t comment on this myself, but that’s a different impression than I got from most of my friends who took it.

Similarly, I would not be surprised Mathematical Evolutionary Dynamics mentioned anything about the central dogma, or even how a cell works.

Fun fact: did you know that “science of living systems” is a broader category than cell biology? Math 153 didn’t talk about the details of cell mechanics, but I bet that neither did SLS 12, 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 22, or 25 (at least based on the titles). We did spend quite a while discussing applications in immunology and ecology, though.

I also feel fairly confident in asserting that most of these math/science types would take fewer humanities classes if they could.

Oh, please. Let’s not make this a math vs. humanities thing. Humanities “types” are just as parochial.

Anyway, it’s obviously true that some people will take fewer classes, and I never claimed otherwise. My point is that Gen Eds are, in practice, bad for approximately everyone, both the people who want to focus and the people who want to branch out. A few people actually come away with useful knowledge or get turned on to a new subject, but they’re very much the exception, in my experience.

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Ray

I had a much better experience with ER 18 sections: we had a lot more interesting discussions that included philosophical principles outside of what we were strictly covering as Chinese philosophy. And though there were definitely students in my section who seemed like they weren’t engaged, there were also a good handful who were and seemed like they did care about the class. I also had the assistant head TF though, so that might’ve been a part of the reason our experiences were so different. Based on just my experiences, I would’ve strongly recommended the class.

Regardless, I definitely agree that the Gen Ed program is overly restrictive in what counts and doesn’t. As a stat/cs person, there are still many humanities courses that I would like to take but can’t because of Gen Ed requirements, and it’s gotten to the point where I filter for only Gen Eds when I search for electives because that’s all I have room for. I’m sure many others also agree that we get a less fulfilling college education because of the strict Gen Ed requirements.

I don’t think Harvard should entirely drop its distribution requirements – I think there is some value to having a bit of breadth to the courses we take. Instead, Harvard should count higher-level courses for the Gen Ed requirements and also allow students to petition for a specific course to count for a requirement (maybe with instructor’s or resident dean’s approval to avoid getting spammed and ensure the request is in good faith). The system has its flaws, but should be reformed instead of completely thrown out.

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Kevin

Gen Ed actually is the reformed system, and even though I started under the Core, I switched to Gen Ed because it cut the number of classes I needed by 2-3. I believe, as you alluded, that the largest problem is just the scarcity of professors willing to get their course listed as Gen Ed, but I am hopeful that the numbers will increase over time.

But seriously, I always tried to avoid the big-name classes. There are a lot of hidden gems in a range of difficulties.

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Chris Stock

Ben, your points are spot-on. I would add that the convoluted Gen Ed sanctioning system contributes to its failure. As you point out, the central office has veto power over whether a class can become a Gen Ed, and their criteria are sometimes baffling. But equally important is that professors and departments also, in effect, have veto power. Suppose you are a good professor teaching a popular (>4.5 Q), seemingly Gen Ed-worthy course. There is little incentive for you to apply for that course to receive Gen Ed credit. Given how few good Gen Ed offerings are currently available, you are guaranteeing an influx of uninterested non-concentration students who just looking for the least painful experience possible; these will increase the load on your teaching staff and decrease quality of section discussions.

One mechanism to address this issue is for your department to take a lead on asking professors to submit courses to count for Gen Ed. But only certain departments will reliably do this, and others will essentially ignore the Gen Ed system entirely. As an example, until recently there were no classes which simultaneously gave AIU credit and Music concentration credit! A revamped distributional system which removed professors, departments, and a central planning office from the picture would be a vast improvement—if only because it would simplify the incentive scheme enormously.

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