Confusion About General Education For Undergrads


Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed

General education programs at their best impart to undergraduates basic knowledge in — or at least exposure to — a variety of disciplines, and provide some sense of how to study and live in a thoughtful way. Their iterations on different campuses are also supposed to embody the values of a particular institution. But how often do they meet that mark? Two institutions concerned that their general education programs were somehow falling short — Harvard and Duke Universities — have initiated the massive undertaking of reform.

At both institutions, a major concern is that students don’t have much sense of what general education is supposed to be accomplishing — a concern at many colleges nationally. Arecent survey of provosts by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, for example, found that while many institutions were moving beyond basic distribution requirements in their general education designs, just 9 percent of respondents said they believed all students were aware of their desired learning outcomes.

Varying Visions of Gen Ed at Harvard

Harvard’s revamped program, which was recently approved by its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, aims to honor the various ways in which professors think about a liberal arts education, and increase student buy-in.

“While many students and faculty highlight the success of specific gen-ed courses, the gen-ed program at Harvard has not yet established a clear and consistent identity among our students and faculty,” reads a Harvard program review committee’s interim report from 2015. “Moreover, despite its prominence in every student’s curricular experience, it plays no defining role in the identity of Harvard College. Most students agree that a well-executed gen-ed program would be valuable, but they are confused about the goals and purposes of the current program.”

Faculty members, by contrast, “are more divided about the value of gen ed, some preferring a straight distribution requirement instead,” the report continues. “But these results are tenuous in both cases, since much of our discussion with students and faculty revealed confusion about what a general-education requirement aims to be and how it differs from a distribution requirement. … Confusion about this distinction at Harvard stems from the fact that in practice our program is a chimera: it has the head of a gen-ed requirement with the body of a distribution requirement.”

Harvard’s only had three general-education programs in its history, and the current program was adopted in 2009. The university didn’t plan to create a new program so soon (and arguably still hasn’t) but found significant flaws in the first five-year review. Interviews with hundreds of faculty members and students revealed that there was little enthusiasm about the program.