Harvard loves Harvard — that much seems sure (and, hey, sometimes we do too!). But does Harvard love education more broadly? There is mounting reason not to be so certain.
Since its 2011 inception, the course General Education 1076: “Equity and Excellence in K-12 American Schools” has been elevated to the status of a beloved and transformative “must-take” amongst students at the College. The course, taught by lecturer Katherine K. Merseth, has managed to attract students across concentrations and backgrounds with its commitment to dismantling students’ traditionally “myopic view” of the educational system. Yet on Jan. 14, after almost a decade of continued success, Gen Ed 1076 was abruptly canceled for the 2021 academic year and placed on a two-year rotation due to budget constraints.
The harm that will stem from limiting the availability of Gen Ed 1076 runs deep. Typically, the course draws in 400 to 600 interested students each year; among these eager students, only a fortunate 160 of them emerge as enrollees following the competitive course lottery. Now, that small fraction of lucky enrollees has been halved, leaving an unnecessarily large number of students deprived of the unparalleled opportunity to deeply engage the strengths and glaring inequities in the American schooling system from an academic perspective. Given that Harvard undergrads tend to lean wealthy (and may consequently have blind spots on these issues), removing this opportunity to probe the socioeconomic disparities plaguing public education is disastrous. This is particularly unnerving given the stigma the small sect of Harvard students hoping to pursue careers in education say they experience because of their intended career path. Gen Ed 1076 — with its far-reaching nature and broad appeal — played a large role in combating that stigma. Now, that potential is fairy dust.
Beyond that, Gen Ed 1076’s cancellation seems to implicitly advance the notion that the University grants preferential treatment to some fields of study over others. Gen Ed 1076 is a particularly meaningful course for those students pursuing Educational Studies, a nascent secondary field made official two years ago, who describe the class as a “gateway” into the program. Inevitably, the strength of the Education secondary field will be severely diminished through its loss of this foundational course. Yet as the Education secondary threatens to wane, many Harvard students continue to be funneled into a narrow, select number of concentrations — Economics, Computer Science, and Government, to name a few. By further limiting an already-overlooked field, the College has actively chosen to maintain the status quo; to champion some disciplines over others while educating on issues of education inequity — which we, as students of the world’s most elite university, would do well to have an awareness of — is earmarked as dispensable.
The discontinuation of Merseth’s class also comes during a global moment in which the future of education is more uncertain (and opportune for transformation) than ever.
While the U.S education system has long been marked by inequality along racial and socioeconomic lines, the Covid-19 pandemic has inflamed these disparities. This unprecedented moment has ultimately drawn much-needed attention and interest in studying education and working to enhance equity, innovation, and care within the classroom. After years of grappling with educational issues in the lecture hall, there is no doubt that Merseth’s digital classroom would have been the ideal place to pursue such inquiries. Now, the absence of such a space has placed undue boundaries upon students’ ability to engage with the challenges of this all-encompassing period; in doing so, it has severely undercut the gravity of the moment.
Gen Ed 1076’s former students are not taking the course’s cancellation sitting down. Only one day after learning of its cancellation, three prior enrollees and teaching fellows of the course forged a petition urging the Harvard administration to reverse their decision — and, before long, nearly 1,000 students, faculty, and alumni joined their ranks. These collective efforts are an inspiring example of dismay being turned into urgent, uplifting action.
The strength and scope of this communal discontent also highlight the disjointedness between students’ wishes and the University’s demands. Too often, administrative decisions about curricula lack transparency and fail to involve constructive, much-needed coordination with students.
The opportunity to make positive and productive changes to course offerings — to, as a student, have a stake in the trajectory of our own education — is a necessary learning experience in and of itself. It’s an exercise in making our voices heard, and in fighting for the education we know we need. The University would do well to listen.
It is jarring that a course so fiercely beloved by students is being slashed. This dynamic cannot continue to prevail. When it comes to making critical choices about course offerings, students deserve a seat at the table.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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