Curriculum Queries

Highlights of a faculty symposium on the most pressing issues in undergraduate education...

Highlights of a faculty symposium on the most pressing issues in undergraduate education

Several dozen Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) professors, senior Harvard administrators, and others spent Sunday, November 23, at Barker Center airing out the broadest questions raised by the current review of the undergraduate curriculum. Three sets of faculty panelists—principally from FAS, but with representatives from some of the professional schools—explored "What We Teach," "Culture, the Economy, and the Curriculum," and "The Students We Teach."

The aim, explained host Peter K. Bol, Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations, was to put the curriculum review in a new context: not in comparison to prior exercises at Harvard after World War II (general education) and the 1970s (the Core curriculum), nor to the efforts of other universities, but in relation to changing world conditions that bear on higher education. Hence Bol, who co-chairs the review task force on general education, described the day's subjects as changes in the organization of knowledge; changes in the world that affect contemporary education; and changes in the culture, ethnicity, and other factors that influence the learning styles of students who come to Harvard College. Unsurprisingly, the presentations and ensuing discussions overlapped and echoed off each other, a process Bol said he expects to continue as such conversations extend throughout FAS.


"What we teach." Intellectual historian James T. Kloppenberg, professor of history, began the first panel by documenting both the "democratization of higher education" (as more of the population pursued postsecondary degrees) and the enormous increase in the number of fields of study in recent decades (area disciplines like Asian studies, and studies of formerly neglected populations such as women, African Americans, various ethnic groups, and post-colonial subjects). Since the 1970s, he noted, interest in the humanities had declined, while job-related fields (business, education, engineering) had become much more popular nationwide. Kloppenberg attributed the shift to economic factors and to intellectual ones, as support for general education and an agreed-upon set of classic works and ideas gave way to more skeptical methods and to specialized research. Increasing specialization brought less faculty interest in general education, a trend that intersected with student emphasis on jobs over meaning; and scholars involved in fields pertaining to meaning and values had accepted a hermeneutics of suspicion. All this pushed questions about how one should live one's life to the margins, opening room for new aspirants to universalism: Straussianism, evolutionary biology, rational choice.

In an era of specialization, fragmentation, and critique, he wondered whether FAS could agree on a common content for general education, even as students need coherence of some sort or other. The Core curriculum, he noted, was an agreement to disagree: to teach methods and modes of knowing, not a common corpus of knowledge. Absent such agreement, he speculated, the faculty might move toward less curricular constraint and a freer elective system for students.

The Medical School's Marc W. Kirschner, Walter professor of cell biology and founding chair of the new department of systems biology, detected no such self-doubt or skepticism within the burgeoning life sciences. Rather, he worried about adequate scientific education for students concentrating in other fields, and about training undergraduate biologists broadly enough. He lamented high school and college courses of study focused only on recent achievements in molecular and cellular biology and genetics.

Missing, he said, are two ingredients. First are the related sciences (chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science) required to do biological research today, and the broader studies (in anatomy and physiology, for example) needed to pull together the emerging systemic view of living organisms. Second is a sense of the most challenging problems awaiting research and discovery—the very reason for doing science, as opposed to celebrating its accomplishments since the deciphering of DNA a half century ago. In a word, he urged that the curriculum resist premature specialization or professionalism, and that it focus not on more training, but on real issues of moment in contemporary science, with more opportunities for meaningful lab experiences and for broad inquiry.

Monrad professor of the social sciences Charles Rosenberg, an historian of science, outlined the institutional and political forces within a university pursuing both research and teaching that affect curriculum content. Between the poles of discipline and department and decanal and committee structure, and between student interests and the intellectual requirements of the disciplines, he urged that students be trusted and given freedom of choice, and that individual professors and departments also be given rein to teach and promote learning.

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family professor of psychology, drew upon his work in understanding language to make a vivid point about interdisciplinary scholarship. He had teased out understanding of how the brain processed language, Pinker said, by using tools from the humanities (the change in verb forms from Chaucerian times to the present); neuroscience (functional MRI imaging of brain centers involved in different aspects of language); and psychology.

In the future, he imagined, moral philosophy would depend on psychological tools and understanding of evolutionary biology, poetry studies on linguistics, and analysis of global warming on atmospheric science and economics alike. That convergence, he said, posed challenges for curriculum design, professorial appointments, and more—to the point that a dean at Dartmouth had suggested, not facetiously, that departments be dissolved so faculty members could coalesce around research problems as needed. Pinker solicited other, less explosive, solutions, and later in the day also challenged faculty members to think about what could be subtracted from their duties, and from student requirements, so any new curriculum suggestions could be accommodated.

Kenan professor of English Marjorie Garber, a Shakespeare scholar who also chairs the department of visual and environmental studies, seconded Pinker's description of the "nonfit" between departments and intellectual disciplines (and more broadly, the disjuncture between job postings, degree committees, departments, and divisions as a whole and the gripping subjects for scholarship and learning). As head of the Humanities Center—a field that, as she noted, preceded the evolution of departmental disciplines a century ago—she urged that the curriculum review go far along the spectrum of repair, restoration, reform, revolution, or reinvention. Although professors understand the interdisciplinary nature of their research, Garber said, the "disconnect" between courses and departments cannot help but confuse students and force them into special committee concentrations—where departmental constraints often leave them to be taught by lecturers or other faculty not in or headed for the tenured ranks, a second-best status. Such areas of study require appointment power and budgetary support on students' behalf she argued, and so do the performing arts. "Re-center the arts at the heart of the undergraduate curriculum," she urged, not as some "decorative or ancillary" add-on.

In the ensuing discussion, faculty members debated the degree of trust students ought to enjoy, versus their concern that a too-liberal curriculum would encourage intellectual dilettantism. Most seemed to favor more freedom of choice in determining courses of study. Kloppenberg, drawing on his experience at Brandeis, raised the issue of "clusters" of courses on a like topic, outside departmental concentrations, by which students and professors could pursue interdisciplinary subjects. Professor of history and of Afro-American studies Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham urged that such subjects be co-taught, as a more vivid way of engaging students in interdisciplinary material than asking them to enroll in multiple courses.

In reconciling what students need and want to learn with what faculty members want to offer them, it was suggested, the professors themselves might learn new ways of pursuing and presenting their scholarship.


"Culture, the economy, and the curriculum." Professor of education Julie Reuben broadened the scope of the discussion. Opening the second panel, she noted that the wave of growth in higher education following World War II led institutions to pursue a common model of liberal arts, based on Harvard's "Red Book" report. But with the relative decline in tax funding for public universities after 1970s, she said, colleges began to fall into different strata, to become more competitive and market-driven, and, in the public sphere, to focus much more on preprofessional and career education.

The ideal of general liberal-arts schooling, she said, became concentrated in the elite institutions. But even there, students' rationale for attending, their course selection, and their attitudes became more careerist and vocational. With the collapse of a unifying "high culture" and the disappearance of consensus on what a "cultured individual" ought to know, the increasingly inclusive curriculum came under attack as excessively politicized or as insufficiently balanced (because, for example, it failed to include creationism).

Those unresolved disputes, Reuben said, have undercut agreement on the public aims of higher education, leaving the enterprise vulnerable to analysis only in terms of its direct economic, private contribution to workforce development, technological discovery, and so on. The challenge to educators, she said, was learning how to discuss those public and common purposes, and to embody them in a liberal arts, general-education curriculum.

In devising any curriculum, said Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, an economist, the time of faculty members is the university's chief resource—and the current review would more likely add to than subtract from demands on that critical resource. More faculty members will help—but so will making most effective use of the time available.

In terms of teaching and learning, Summers emphasized the role of communications technology in making the whole world available to students, and making the resources of the University available to the whole world. He also cast vocationalism in a new light, stressing the positive results of quantitative, empirical analytical techniques in making susceptible to understanding problems in health sciences, public policy, and many other realms that simply could not be understood before. (In later discussion, he called the phenomenon "the application of scientism in a much broader space than it has been traditionally applied.") With that growth in the ability to know things useful to know naturally came growth in related fields of study and learning—a phenomenon different from, and more valuable than, mere careerism.

Finally, he saw a rising premium on the importance of students being able to work cooperatively to solve problems in their post-graduation lives, a skill perhaps not taught well given the academy's emphasis on the essay or exam written in solitude. This cooperative model stands in contrast to the hierarchical form of reporting and organization that once prevailed in most organizations like businesses and government, but does so no longer.

Boardman professor of fine arts Irene J. Winter defined a "discipline" (a domain of knowledge, a method of analysis, and a body of theory), and then noted the changes in her own studies, which increasingly rely on anthropology, physical sciences, and rich empirical and theoretical tools. Resurrecting a fine arts survey course based on the perceived great works of Europe would never do, she thought; basic understanding of where art was made and what it meant has simply progressed too far in the past few decades. (Summers, who raised the notion of such surveys in his Commencement address last June, noted that he did not mean in any sense to "privilege" one group of people or one area or one approach over another; but did note that students sought some help in "filling the void" of basic knowledge "with some confidence" in several realms of learning.)

Professor of earth and planetary sciences Daniel P. Schrag, who studies climate change and oceanography, reintroduced the notion of preparing students, in an era of globalization, for leadership in any career pursuit: business, government, academic research, whatever. Given the impossibility of equipping students with all the facts they will need to cope, the goal ought to be to "teach them to fish"—education in analytical techniques, ways of using data, perhaps extending that to graphical understanding (of the sort explained in Edward Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Information), and, generally, in reaching conclusions from complex situations.

To effect that, Schrag suggested, it might be best to interest the learners in issues of current and broad social concern, such as climate change or genetic engineering. That is, rather than teaching statistics, pose an engaging problem and lead the students to learn the tools they require to analyze it rigorously and soundly—the kinds of real problems posed in environmental science and public policy, where math, chemistry, biology, and statistics all come into play. Throughout, the curriculum review must validate and make vivid for all to see the methods of scientific, social scientific, and humanities research, none of which is a frill nor based on false or political premises.

In discussion, Sosland Family professor of Romance languages and literatures Mary M. Gaylord gave an example of where the current curriculum might be upside down. The first-year Expository Writing course, a required unit, teaches a skill before students have made a substantive choice. She thought that perhaps once students have fallen in love with a concentration, then they ought to have their written and other expressive skills honed in their substantive classes.


Luncheon speaker Thomas Bender, historian and University Professor of the Humanities at NYU, characterized the research and teaching missions of universities as an "unstable compound"—hence the motive for recurrent reviews of the curriculum. In the secular twentieth-century university, he noted, the rationale for the institution dating from its founding in the 1840s had vanished; no longer did universities exist to pursue understanding in an orderly world under God. Today, disciplines are autonomous and self-justifying, and so, from their competition, emerges a void, not a "commons" for general education.

"Red Book"-era Harvard looked toward entwined progress in science and humanities (in reaction to the fascist debacle), with fields such as philosophy leading the way toward analytical moral reasoning. In fact, such fields have gone in a much different direction, as faculties have pursued disciplinary sophistication and methodological rigor over the needs of undergraduate learners. The inherent problem, that undergraduates are not all professors-in-the making, devolves in curriculum terms to common approaches to learning or methods (the Core), not to common content. That has been particularly tough outside the sciences, as professors have focused on concerns of their disciplinary practice; Bender quoted a professor to the effect that "I don't want to teach students about the economy; I want to teach them about economics."

Of late, the humanities have both Americanized, departing from their formerly European focus, and become multicultural in their embrace of content and technique, making it difficult to form a curriculum. Social sciences, in contrast, have freed themselves from connection to specific places or cultures, instead embracing "rational choice" analysis, and so diverging from the humanities. Since the prevailing scholarly approach could be said to be not just "critical," an analytical positive, but also "suspicious" of learning and knowledge as cultural artifacts, it became ever more difficult to unite studies around the humanities.

In this context, Bender counseled, curriculum reformers would have to live with fragmented disciplines as necessary to the pursuit of knowledge, but not sufficient to its transmission. New undergraduates, he thought, are not ignorant of disciplines, so they need not be introduced to them. Trust them to pursue their interests, he urged, but show them how the disciplines can and must be applied outside their academic context, in pursuit of the responsibilities of personhood, citizenship, and so on: the basic skills of interpreting, judging, discriminating, making connections, and synthesizing out in the world. That habit could be fostered by achieving dialogue between academic and everyday knowledge, in the "clusters" discussed earlier, or perhaps in other ways [along the lines Schrag suggested?].

Bender was reminded of Emersonian wisdom: that a scholar lives in a world of ideas and in an everyday place—and so must students. His take-aways were quotes from Alfred North Whitehead (to the effect that each profession makes progress in its own groove, but no single groove is adequate for comprehension of human life) and Dewey (to the effect that the success of specialized knowledge depends on its use to refer back to the common knowledge of ordinary life, and to make ordinary life "more luminous and fruitful," not more opaque).


"The students we teach." Higginbotham surveyed the changing student body (many more Asian Americans during the past 20 years, along with growth in Hispanic and international enrollments), and the gender distribution in leading concentrations (far more men than women in economics, government, and history; far more women than men in psychology, English, history and literature, and biology). No surprise, diverse extracurricular student groups have proliferated.

Professor of German Eric Rentschler, who teaches film courses, urged that the curriculum reflect students' exposure to audio-visual material—"We no longer live in the book culture of the nineteenth century"—so they could understand how such information was framed and produced. At stake, he said, were "larger questions about what constitutes literacy in the culture in which we live."

A bit later, professor of Romance languages and literature Tom C. Conley, master of Kirkland House and another film scholar, urged study abroad, mastery of at least three languages, team teaching, and close faculty involvement in reading students' written work and correcting it.

Between them, Jan M. Ziolkowski, Porter professor of medieval Latin and a comparative literature specialist, rose to make the case for traditional, book-focused learning. The College's mission, he said, was not to solve the world's problems but to advance youth in the arts and sciences and to help educate those neglected (in the 1650 Charter, Native Americans; today, those left behind economically and in other respects in the United States, before elite students are recruited from around the world). He urged much more language proficiency, too, but cautioned that study abroad be in those newly learned languages, rather than an excuse to visit American enclaves overseas.

In the Harvard shield and in the physical presence of Widener Library he discerned the centrality of the book, and urged Harvard education to focus on what is not automatically part of students' lives. Thus, he said, the audiovisually literate "can Google," but faculty needed to help them learn to navigate the contents of books and libraries, by whatever means they are accessed. Turning to a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, Ziolkowski warned, "In our era, the perils of undercultivation far outweigh" the perils Roosevelt espied in "overcultivation" from excessive book learning. The College mission must be to foster the little-used word "wisdom" and its pursuit.

Mallinckrodt professor of physics Howard Georgi, himself a House master (Leverett), extolled Harvard as a place where students can learn from each other and from the broad faculty and other resources, and pleaded that its strengths not be damaged in curriculum reform. Given the students' strengths, he said, echoing Charles Rosenberg, they "are worth trusting" in their curricular choices. The Core, he said, served most students well, but only annoyed the best ones; better for them to take a serious minor in a field far apart from their concentration.

He also wished for more effective education of women and minority students in the mathematical sciences, and hoped that they would be recognized for their accomplishments per se in high school and in Harvard's review of applicants for admission to the College (rather than worrying about their other, extracurricular accomplishments). As for non-science concentrators, he was skeptical about how well they were being schooled in science at Harvard, and instead thought that beefed-up training in writing and other skills might be more important.

In the discussion, after Steven Pinker raised the notion of what obligations to remove from students' and professors' shoulders, several faculty members noted how disciplines renew themselves and cast off material taught 10 or 20 years ago—not that that alone answers the larger questions of allocating time. Several professors agreed that class websites and associated technology helped in teaching and learning. And several were glad to answer a student's question about what they wanted their Harvard undergraduates to get from their College experience: priceless interaction with other students (Georgi); analytical skills and a sense of the tremendous resources at their disposal here (Higginbotham); graduates who will be informed, responsible citizens and capable of leadership in the modern world (Rentschler).


Bol, attempting the impossible task of summarizing the day in five minutes, said it was the first such effort, a partial one, to bring the faculty as a whole into the curriculum review, and would have to be replicated and extended. He had been struck by the morning discussion about disciplines and specialization promoting progress in knowledge and having the side-effect of narrowness and fragmentation, now expressed in the urge toward interdisciplinary research and course work. His own interest in Chinese history of a millennium ago had led him to take an interest in geography, but he had discovered that the differences between physical, quantitative, historical, and even humanistic modes of geography are so great and require such different competencies that he had come to see the concept of "discipline" as unstable and even problematic, even if all modes of analysis could produce useful knowledge. And he had the sense that within the College there was science, and then everything else—almost two separate colleges.

He also noted the importance of offering projects that gave students a reason to want to master a competency or discipline by engaging in study—and not only in any one undergraduate year, but throughout. The challenge was to expand learners' curiosity so they would engage in self-transformation. Why was it, for example, that 900 students crowded into Sanders to take Michael Sandel's "Justice"? Because they want to think about good and bad and making moral judgments—to be in creative tension with the world in which they live, as they think about reasons for, say, waging war on Iraq. In China, those decisions were left to the elite leaders. Not here. In this sense, maybe what the students want is what they need, and the faculty need to help them succeed while trusting them to do the right thing.           

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