- Week 1: we picked a central passage of the book and drew a picture.
- Week 4: we pretended to start a business based on the book.
- Week 6: we drew and colored in a pictorial map of the important concepts.
- Week 8: we had a debate. To ensure that everyone spoke, we went around in a circle, everyone saying one sentence at a time.
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.