Harvard has long required that students take a set of courses outside of their concentration in order to ensure that their undergraduate education encompasses a broad range of topics and approaches. The Program in General Education aligns these requirements with the educational needs of Harvard College students at the dawn of the twenty-first century. General Education seeks explicitly to “connect 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.” In addition, the Program seeks to provide new opportunities for students to learn – and for faculty to teach – in ways that cut across traditional departmental and intra-University lines.
Complementing the rest of the curriculum, this program aims to achieve four goals that link the undergraduate experience to the lives students will lead after Harvard:
- to prepare students for civic engagement;
- to teach students to understand themselves as products of, and participants in, traditions of art, ideas, and values;
- to enable students to respond critically and constructively to change; and
- to develop students’ understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do.
Students must complete one letter-graded course in each of the following eight General Education categories. Additionally, one of these eight courses must engage substantially with the Study of the Past:
Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding – Courses in Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding focus on the development of aesthetic responsiveness and the ability to interpret forms of cultural expression through the study of literary or religious texts, paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, film, dance, decorative arts, etc. Students learn to engage intelligently and critically with the world of art, literature, and ideas by analyzing works in a theoretical framework.
Culture and Belief – Courses in Culture and Belief develop an understanding of and appreciation for the ways that social, political, religious, economic, and historical conditions shape the production and reception of ideas and works of art, either within or across cultural boundaries. Students in these courses examine how cultures and beliefs affect the identities of individuals and communities. Courses in this category draw connections between the material covered in the course and cultural issues of wide concern or interest.
Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning – Courses in Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning teach the conceptual and theoretical tools used in reasoning and problem-solving, such as statistics, probability, mathematics, logic, and decision theory. Students develop the ability to apply abstract principles and theories to concrete problems. They also learn how to make decisions and draw inferences that involve the evaluation of data and evidence, and how to recognize when an issue cannot be settled on the basis of the available evidence. Students will become aware of the many mistakes human beings are prone to making in their reasoning and come to understand how to avoid common pitfalls in inference-making.
Ethical Reasoning – Courses in Ethical Reasoning teach students to reason in a principled way about moral and political beliefs and practices, and to deliberate and assess claims for themselves about ethical issues. Students examine the competing conceptions and theories of ethical concepts such as the good life, obligation, rights, justice, and liberty with a focus on developing the ability to assess and weigh the reasons for and against adopting them to address concrete ethical dilemmas. Students in these courses may encounter value systems very different from their own that call attention to their own ethical assumptions.
Science of Living Systems – Courses in Science of Living Systems teach central concepts, facts and theories in the life sciences and engineering, and relate them to problems of wide concern. These courses may explore a range of topics relating to understanding life – its origins, the way it adapts to and changes the environment, and the ways in which human interventions can affect its trajectory. These courses provide students with the tools to evaluate scientific claims, consider alternative accounts for empirical findings, and appreciate the ambiguity that often surrounds such findings. Whenever possible, students examine the nature of experiments on living systems through laboratory, field, or other hands-on experiences.
Science of the Physical Universe – Courses in Science of the Physical Universe teach scientific concepts, facts, theories, and methods in the physical sciences and engineering and relate them to problems of wide concern. These courses may explore discoveries, inventions, and concepts in the physical sciences that have led to or underlie issues affecting societies across the globe including reliance on fossil fuels, the exploration of space, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, climate change, and privacy in an age of digital communication. The courses provide students with the tools to evaluate scientific claims, consider alternative accounts for empirical findings, and appreciate the ambiguity that often surrounds such findings. Whenever possible, students examine the nature of experiments in the physical sciences and engineering through laboratory, field, or other hands-on experiences.
Societies of the World – Courses in Societies of the World provide students with an international perspective by acquainting them with values, customs, and institutions that differ from their own, and help students to understand how different beliefs, behaviors, and ways of organizing society come into being. These courses may focus primarily on a single society or region, or they may address topics that transcend national boundaries, analyzing the flow and transformation of money, goods, people, resources, information, or ideas between and among different societies. The courses may take a variety of disciplinary approaches, and may treat topics from a contemporary perspective or a historical one. Students will develop an awareness of the diversity of ways in which human beings have organized their social existence.
United States in the World – Courses in United States in the World examine American social, political, legal, cultural, and/or economic practices, institutions, and behaviors from contemporary, historical, and/or analytical perspectives. These will help students to understand this country as a heterogeneous and multifaceted nation situated within an international framework by examining ideas about what it means to be an American, about the persistence and diversity of American values, and about the relations among different groups within the United States and between the United States and the rest of the world. Courses may compare the American situation to other societies of the world, or show change over time within the US. These courses prepare students for civic agency by providing critical tools to understand these issues in a historical and/or comparative context.
In general, students should plan to take one General Education course per term. There are, however, no constraints regarding the timing of the requirements as long as all are completed by graduation. First-year students often find that General Education courses are useful for exploring potential concentrations. Other students use the General Education requirements to add some variety to their course of study.