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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Changing the College Curriculum

May-June 2002

The renovation of Harvard's undergraduate course of study took two piecemeal steps forward during the late winter and early spring, even as the timetable for a major overhaul was slowed by significant personnel changes within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

At its March 12 meeting, the faculty voted to reduce the number of Core Curriculum courses students must complete from eight to seven (of the 32 courses required for a degree). This measure liberalizes a standard established at the Core's 1978 inception. It will be effected by granting students exemptions from the four Core areas (foreign cultures, moral reasoning, science A and B, and so on) closest to their concentration. By this mechanism, the faculty aims to maximize students' breadth of education, even as their overall exposure to Core courses is lessened.

Citing the need to create "curricular flexibility" for students, dean of undergraduate education and professor of history Susan G. Pedersen began discussion on changing the Core requirement at the February 12 faculty meeting. Both undergraduates and faculty members have raised the problem of navigating the requirements for Cores, foreign-language study, expository writing, and concentrations (which may prescribe up to 16 of a student's courses); Pedersen, a veteran of the College class of 1981, knows about the curriculum firsthand as student, professor, and now dean. The Educational Policy Committee has jawboned departments to reduce concentration requirements in recent years. But students have still found it difficult to accommodate freshman seminars (whose availability Pedersen has championed) or to study abroad or simply to pursue an interesting class when the spirit moves them (see "Undergraduate Upgrade," January-February, page 59).

Some faculty members worried that in simply cutting Core requirements, they were shirking their responsibility to ensure that students are liberally educated. In the February debate, Baird professor of science Gary J. Feldman cautioned that most of his physics advisees would use their new freedom to take more courses in physics or related fields, thereby losing "the breadth that I think a Harvard education should provide." During the March discussion, professor of Chinese history Peter K. Bol moved that the eighth Core requirement be waived for students who used that slot for general-education purposes: a freshman seminar, say, or study abroad. In the event, Feldman declared himself satisfied by Pedersen's formula for determining which four Core areas a student could skip, and Bol's motion failed, in part because there are not yet enough seminars to accommodate all freshmen.

Pedersen also reported that the standing committee on study out of residence had delivered its report on study abroad, under the direction of its chairman, William L. Fash, Bowditch professor of Central American and Mexican archaeology and ethnology, and William C. Kirby, Geisinger professor of history. Although that report will be refined before the faculty debates any new legislation this spring, its recommendations are sweeping. The committee urged that study abroad not be restricted to a "special opportunity" unavailable at Harvard, and that in fact study abroad for credit itself be perceived as a special opportunity, "an invaluable part of a Harvard education." So the committee would liberalize rules on content and foreign-language skill now governing study out of residence, and urged favorable review of such experiences from the perspective of both Core and departmental concentration requirements.

During these debates, several faculty members expressed a wish to examine the entire undergraduate curriculum. So the announcement before the March 12 faculty meeting that Pedersen (who has two very young children, and whose husband holds an academic position in New York City) would relinquish her decanal duties at the end of the term took on greater than usual significance. From her initial, and strikingly successful, work on freshman seminars (see "Face-to-Face with Faculty," January-February 2001, page 64), Pedersen has sparked swift change in the College academic experience. Broader rethinking of the curriculum—a major undertaking—now must await the arrival of a new FAS dean and of Pedersen's successor as well. After the faculty changed the Core requirements, President Lawrence H. Summers made a point of going on record in favor of the comprehensive curriculum review, saying that it surely "will be appropriate for the new dean and new dean of undergraduate education" to launch that effort.