General Education: Program Without a Policy; Professional Pressures Replace the Redbook

Amid educational experimentation unparalleled in the last decade, Harvard's most significant venture of recent years is in serious trouble: the General Education program, under pressures from all sides, is nearing a crisis.

"I have sometimes wondered whether the time to stop General Education has come," said Mark de Wolfe Howe last week. His query apparently reflects Faculty attitudes throughout the College, for several members of the General Education Committee have grave doubts that the Faculty would approve the program if asked to vote today.

The root of this questioning and of increasing resentment among the Faculty of the program's protected status is the profound change which the last decade has brought both in the General Education program and in the educational outlook of the College and the nation.

The Redbook--General Education in a Free Society--which was the foundation of the original General Education proposal is virtually a dead letter. Professor David E. Owen, ex-Chairman of the General Education Committee, admits, "One can hardly disguise the fact that there has been departure from the Redbook." Professor Reuben A. Brower, who teaches Humanities 6, puts the matter more strongly: "I remember how the Redbook was cited right and left six years ago, but nobody mentions it now.... Just by quietly not talking about the Redbook, a lot of good things get done."

The Redbook is seldom mentioned, too, in the General Education Committee, although it has been used to prevent introduction of lower level courses in Fine Arts and music. Most of the Committee seems to think that the Redbook no longer applies to Harvard, if it ever did.


Professor Kenneth B. Murdock, chairman of the Committee, feels that the Redbook was a product of the intellectual climate of the end of the war, and that the educational demands of society have changed so much that it is no longer applicable. Further, he points out, the idea of single courses to be taken by every undergraduate is completely opposed to Harvard's strong elective tradition.

The Redbook was also a result of similar experiments at the University of Chicago and at Columbia which captured the imagination of teachers and scholars two decades ago. With the waning of enthusiasm for these two leaders, however, Harvard's program has also suffered. In addition, both the College and the national temper seem to have moved away from the very idea of General Education.

Stress on Specialization

Even before the Sputnik era, emphasis on science and learning taken on their own merits was increasing, and the demand for General Education was on the wane. A similar transformation taking place within Harvard has put more and more emphasis on professional training and scholarship.

The effects of the change in General Education's environment are particularly clear when the lower level courses proposed in the Redbook are compared with those now given. The Humanities course was to be entitled "Great Texts of Literature." "The aim of such a course would be the fullest understanding of the work read rather than of men or periods represented, craftsmanship evinced, historic or literary development shown, or anything else. These other matters ... should be left for special education." It is difficult to contend that recent additions to the Humanities curriculum follow this outline.

"Training in Heritage"

Social Science courses are equally far from the original proposal. "Harvard College should assume a full and a conscientious responsibility for training men in the nature of the heritage which they possess, and in the responsibilities which they must assume as free men for its enlargement and perpetuation." Although a majority of the lower level courses have remained historical, and thus concerned with the "nature of the heritage" the responsibilities implied have not been assumed.

"If the departments have learned the principle of General Education, I think the time to stop General Education has come," says Howe. Again, his attitude is a common one. Although one of the tenets of the old program was that no introductory course for concentrators could be really satisfactory for a non-concentrator, many people, including several members of the Committee, seem prepared to go back to the old departmental basis of distribution, largly because the present program lacks a constructive policy.

The upper level requirement too has changed radically. Instead of the distribution requirement which is the present upper level program, the Redbook suggested that only a very limited group of courses approved by the Committee should be fulfill the upper level requirement. And there was no suggestion that the intention was simply to promote distribution.

No Current Policy