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Remarks by Drew Gilpin Faust at the General Education Launch Event

Lowell Lecture Hall, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered

I see this as a historic moment, and so I want to talk a little bit right now as a historian. We are starting something new for Harvard that comes within a set of traditions of this institution, and I’d like to mark that change and situate it within the context of what has come before. A curriculum is inevitably a statement about what a faculty and an institution believe to be the purposes of a college education. There is a great deal that is at stake in such a definition. It says something fundamental about how we see ourselves and how we see the purposes of learning. And that is why, in part, it has taken so much deliberation and negotiation, because it is of such importance. Between about 2002 and 2009 we have been talking as a university, as a faculty of arts and sciences, about what should be the future of liberal arts education. Out of that set of conversations has come the affirmation of the notion of a broadly based education designed not so much to fill minds as to open them, designed to introduce students to the very breadth of knowledge and the tools of judgment and critical thinking that can provide a path to it. So in the deliberations of faculty about how a liberal arts education should be structured, we came as a university to a reaffirmation of the notion of general education. This was contrasted with the notion of a discipline-based distribution requirement. It marked a continuing belief in a certain kind of course that was meant especially for the generalist. Not just a first stop on a journey into a discipline, but instead a course that was meant to bring knowledge and a discipline to students.

This reaffirmation was a continuation of a set of commitments that were first articulated just after World War II in a book and a program called General Education in a Free Society. This program was a product of a committee created by President Conant in the aftermath of the war, and it grappled with what the war and the new world order meant to the notions of knowledge and freedom in the world. Conant was committed to educating citizens of a free nation with what they needed to know to be part of a free society and a changing world. This group of individuals concluded, and I quote, “… [e]ducation is not a process of stuffing the mind with facts.” Instead, education sought the abilities, and I quote again, “to think effectively, to communicate thought, to make relevant judgments, [and] to discriminate among values.” An aim of this education should be to break the stranglehold of the present upon the mind. Knowledge should be in the world. Knowledge should be for citizens, not just for scholars in their disciplines; knowledge should be for responsible human beings and citizens in a democratic society. This meant the development of special courses that would accomplish these goals using the knowledge of disciplines, the knowledge of research, to be translated into an education for the citizens the world so desperately needed. By the 1970s, the general education courses of the post World War II-era had grown a bit stale. They had not maintained, in the eyes of those critiquing them at that time, the standards that the faculty in the mid-70s thought were appropriate to a Harvard College education. And so once again, the Harvard faculty and the Harvard community looked at the contents of undergraduate education, and revised them to create the Core program that has been with us ever since. This set of courses was meant to renew and refresh the curriculum and also to focus somewhat differently than the general education courses of the immediate post-World War II program—to look at ways of knowing as the avenue into an education. But consistent with the earlier program was the understanding that there ought to be a special set of courses, and that simply to introduce students to disciplines through a kind of “column A, column B” approach was not an adequate way of educating and enlightening undergraduates.

So now we find ourselves in 2009 with both continuity and change, with a reaffirmation of the principle that there should be special courses designed, in the words of Alison Simmons, “to bring the knowledge to the student.” The student, in this conception of general education, is very much, again, the student in the world—the student whose knowledge should relate to the larger life in which she or he will find herself or himself. This is like the student and citizen of 1945, but it is also significantly different— different in that the world has changed so much, different in how information is available to us, different in the technological revolutions that have occurred even since 1975, not to mention since 1945. It is different as well because a social revolution has occurred, with a greatly enhanced diversity of our student body and of our university, and with our place very much more firmly embedded in the world as a whole, rather than simply in American society. When we think about some of these changes, just think about the notion of trailers for courses. Evelynn Hammonds showed me this morning some of the technological miracles on the computer that can explain to you what some of these courses consist of. And that in itself, I think, is testament to the changed world in which we find ourselves. So this general education program emphasizes choice, variety, innovation, suppleness. It places the tradition and the principles of general education within a curriculum that is new and forward-looking. And it also emphasizes the kinds of pedagogical innovation that are a necessary part of adapting to the world that has been transformed in the ways I have described. So today we celebrate a wonderful beginning, but I think we must also recognize that this curriculum must always be a work in progress. It is never going to be a curriculum achieved. Because when it is that, it has somehow, then, lost its purpose and its energy. So let us think of this as the first day of general education, but let us think of ourselves, also, as its architects for many years to come, as we keep it alive and vibrant, and as we continue to change it to adapt to the world, which itself will change around us. Thank you very much.

– Drew Gilpin Faust