Letter from Former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis

It’s been years since I’ve seen the sort of Chinese restaurant menu that required choosing one dish from Column A and one from Column B. It didn’t give you complete freedom, but it was a lot of fun to join your dinner companions in making crazy combinations of things that didn’t actually go that well together.

Those menus may be gone from restaurants, but they are alive and well at our colleges—not in the cafeteria, but in most course catalogs. There, the requirements that are supposed to make sure your kids receive a well-rounded education often simply call for one course in the humanities, one course in social science, and so on. On some campuses, it doesn’t matter at all what courses are chosen, as long as they are in the right categories. Other schools limit the courses so that they meet some special criteria, but there is little sense of how each individual course relates to the others.

The venerable and honorable notion of “general education” has, in other words, been reduced to a game. Students have to work their way through a vast menu of general education requirements, and do their best to find courses that fit the various categories as well as their schedules. 

This is deplorable indeed. At its best, general education is about the unity of knowledge, not about distributed knowledge. Not about spreading courses around, but about making connections between different ideas. Not about the freedom to combine random ingredients, but about joining an ancient lineage of the learned and wise. And it has a goal, too: producing an enlightened, self-reliant citizenry, pluralistic and diverse but united by democratic values.

It is in that spirit that I welcome you to WhatWillTheyLearn.com and urge you to use it as a resource.

If I may, let me draw your particular attention to one area. Many studies have shown that our college graduates are ignorant of the basic principles on which our government runs. For starters, most cannot identify the purpose of the First Amendment, what Reconstruction was, or the historical context of the Voting Rights Act. If you peruse this website, you will see why: the vast majority of our colleges have made a course on the broad themes of U.S. history or government optional. This is especially dangerous in America, where nothing holds us together except our democratic principles. If universities don’t pass them down, our children will not inherit our nationhood genetically. They can receive that heritage only through learning. That’s one key reason that during the college search you must ask: what will they learn?

With good guidance, students can get the holistic educational experience almost anywhere. But good guidance is hard to come by, and these days, the menus don’t help very much. That’s why I hope this resource will help you find out which of the colleges you and your children are considering are taking care to provide an education…and which are just offering a menu.

Harry R. Lewis
Former Dean, Harvard College

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