The Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted Tuesday to approve an overhaul of the college’s General Education requirements that will allow students to fulfill as many as half the requirements pass-fail.
The new system will require Harvard students to take four courses in an updated set of General Education categories and fulfill three distributional requirements across the FAS and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In interviews with The Harvard Crimson, Harvard administrators said students could take up to four of those requirements pass-fail. At Yale, undergraduates must take classes in six distributional areas for letter grades to fulfill graduation requirements. But although the academic requirements at the two universities are not identical, the Harvard announcement has raised the oft-debated question of whether Yale students should be permitted to take courses in mandatory subject areas pass-fail.
Students interviewed mostly expressed enthusiasm about the possibility of similar changes at Yale, saying a pass-fail option for distributional requirements would reduce stress and encourage students to take challenging courses outside their major. But according to Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, faculty and administrators at Yale are not currently considering changes to the rules around distributional requirements, which cannot be taken Credit/D/Fail.
“[The Harvard announcement] is complete news to me. I do not know of any current agitation among the [Yale] faculty on either side of the issue,” Holloway said. “Having not studied the specific issue closely I’m not in a position to offer a firm opinion on the matter. In the past, I have heard compelling arguments advocating both sides of the debate.”
The changes to the General Education requirements at Harvard mark the culmination of a yearslong faculty review process designed to address long-standing problems in the program. A faculty report released last November concluded that General Education courses were often overenrolled and that the program itself lacked a coherent purpose.
Yale faculty interviewed expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of similar adjustments to Yale’s distributional requirements, despite widespread student complaints that the requirements are onerous and ineffective at promoting intellectual exploration.
French lector Ruth Koizim said students taking courses Credit/D/Fail often put limited effort into their classwork.
“It is not unworth some consideration, but I have some strong reservations about making distributional requirements pass-fail,” Koizim said. “We are expecting to hold students to some standard and that is not inappropriate.”
Yale history of art professor Diana Kleiner said the changes at Harvard are focused more on evaluating the efficacy and value of the General Education program than on the question of whether the courses should be taken pass-fail. But Kleiner added that although the introduction of Credit/D/Fail electives would likely encourage students to experiment outside their areas of expertise, it might also tempt students to pay less attention to those classes.
All five students interviewed said they would support changing the distributional requirements at Yale to allow students to fulfill some requirements Credit/D/Fail.
Anthony Rocco ’18 said changing the system would encourage students to take harder classes rather than ones know to be easy.
“It would really appeal to athletes,” said Rocco, who plays for the varsity lacrosse team. “Because of our hectic schedule, it’s impossible to do those hard classes.”
But Xinyuan Chen ’17 said the creation of an easier, low-stress route to fulfilling the distributional requirements would represent an unnecessary adjustment to the current system.
“Yale already has classes geared to kids who aren’t in the major,” Chen said. “If you were to Credit/D one of those, it would be a bit excessive.”
Yale’s distributional and skills requirements are in humanities, sciences, social sciences, quantitative reasoning, writing and foreign language.