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students studying in the library

Harvard was founded in 1636 and named for its first donor, the Reverend John Harvard. It was granted a charter by the Colony of Massachusetts in 1650, under whose authority the University of today still operates.

For its first 200 years Harvard College followed a curriculum consistent with the instructional style of the period. It emphasized rhetorical principles, rote learning, and constant drilling. Harvard’s then-small faculty was distinguished from the beginning. John Winthrop (A.B. 1732), who held the Hollis Professorship and taught mathematics and natural philosophy from 1738 to 1779, was one of America’s greatest men of science in the Colonial era.

Initially established to provide a learned ministry to the colonies, Harvard only later created graduate programs. The first was medical studies in 1782, followed by law and divinity in 1816 and 1817, respectively.

Under the presidency of Charles William Eliot (1869–1909), the number and variety of classes multiplied, the lecture system supplanted recitation, and students were permitted a free choice of courses.

Eliot’s successor, A. Lawrence Lowell, believed there was “too much teaching and too little studying” in Harvard College. Accordingly, throughout his presidency (1909–1933), Lowell emphasized scholarship and honors work, eventually introducing the system of “concentration and distribution,” together with general examinations and tutorials, which continues essentially unchanged today.

James Bryant Conant (1933-1953) further emphasized the need for breadth by introducing the first General Education curriculum through his 1945 report General Education in a Free Society, known as the “Red Book.”

When dissatisfaction grew over the General Education program in the 1970s, President Derek Curtis Bok (1971–1991) oversaw its replacement by the Core Curriculum. While reaffirming the principle that every Harvard undergraduate should be broadly educated, the Core emphasized ways of knowing, allowing for students to choose from a range of courses in seven areas.

In 2006, Harvard conducted a review of undergraduate education, which led to a new focus on study abroad, the creation of secondary fields, and the new Program in General Education, which replaced the Core Curriculum in 2013. The new approach to General Education offers courses that connect in explicit ways what students are learning in the classroom to the lives they will lead beyond college.