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John Harvard's Journal

Addition by Subtraction

July-August 2004

Harvard undergraduates would be much freer than they are now to shape a course of study if the recommendations of the "Report on the Harvard College Curricular Review" are enacted. The 67-page report, released to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) by its dean, William C. Kirby, on April 26 (www.fas.harvard.edu/curriculum-review/report.html), recommends procedures to let students pursue their interests more readily and work more closely with professors in doing so. But major substantive questions remain. It is not yet possible to discern what kind of general education will succeed the Core curriculum (which is to be phased out); how the aim of better science education will be realized; nor in what ways concentrations (whose requirements may be lessened) will be reshaped. Now FAS will determine, by closer study and, presumably, legislation during the next academic year, what use to make of the envisioned curricular freedom.

In a letter introducing the report to faculty members, Kirby wrote of the challenge of educating undergraduates in an "age of ever-greater pressures for specialization and professionalization." Against those pressures, he offered a vision of renewed "liberal education in the arts and sciences." Given the interconnectedness of knowledge in the world, it would both embrace "concentrated learning" for students and enable them to grasp "the importance and relevance of fields to which they do not themselves owe personal allegiance and in which they have not developed special expertise."

Kirby gave priority to enhancing "opportunities for our students in international studies and in the sciences" — realms of dramatic change since the review of general education in the 1970s that yielded the Core curriculum (organized around "approaches to knowledge"). Students would be "expected" to study, conduct research, or work abroad.

To accommodate those expanded focal points, Kirby explained, the Core would be succeeded by "integrative, foundational" Harvard College Courses, in which "faculty would take on the responsibility of defining what we believe our students will need to know." Students could use such courses, along with more numerous departmental offerings, to fulfill general education requirements — a sort of loose distribution system. For illustrative purposes, the report suggests students might complete two courses each in humanities, social sciences, life sciences, and physical sciences and engineering (thereby increasing undergraduates' science exposure), plus a final category of "international perspectives." The total requirement — 10 semester-length courses plus a term of foreign language (perhaps part of the "international" range) — exceeds the Core's standard seven courses, but widens each category and the number of options that qualify as general education.

Student options would be further widened by deferring concentration choice from freshman year until the end of the first sophomore term, and by capping required concentration courses at 12 (rather than 12 to 14 of an undergraduate's 32 courses now) and doing away with honors tracks (typically 14 to 16 courses). Students who wished to take more courses in their field could do so.

Finally, to foster closer professor-student collaboration, Kirby noted that the report suggests, among other measures, mandating faculty-led freshman and junior seminars. Section sizes might also decrease, from 18 students to 15 — of general importance, and critical for Harvard College Courses, which may have huge enrollments.

"The important messages of this report are the broad themes," said Jeffrey Wolcowitz, the Harvard College associate dean who served as principal author. The most important of those, he said, is the "reaffirmation of a broad liberal arts and sciences education."

 

That message particularly resonated with some faculty members. At the May 4 faculty meeting, the first of two dedicated to discussing the report, William Mills Todd III emphasized resisting "requirement creep" — professors' unending quest to teach their students more about their own fields, as if they were preparing all College concentrators for academic careers. Harvard College dean Benedict H. Gross, a mathematician, who oversaw the curriculum review, said, "We don't graduate historians of science. We graduate students of Harvard College."

Todd, who is Levin professor of literature and professor of comparative literature, and a former dean of undergraduate education, outlined four principles for successful curriculum revision. One is trust: in professors, to create good courses, and in students, to seek out intellectual challenge. Another is rethinking traditional disciplines and bringing professors' current research into the classroom. Both are parts of what Kirby's letter described as reasserting "the faculty's responsibility" to guide students even as the curricular collar is loosened.

Todd's third criterion is acting on the promise to offer small-class instruction throughout students' Harvard years. The effect, he said, would be even more critical than improved academic advising (another of the report's goals — and a perennial complaint in the College). Finally, he pointed to the report's advocacy of "recertification" of each concentration by the dean's Educational Policy Committee, which has jawboned departments on their requirements during the past decade. In an interview, Kirby confirmed that he envisioned reviews in which each concentration would have to clarify its program of study, explain how it is organized for students, and what resources beyond traditional departmental bounds it uses to encompass interdisciplinary opportunities. The intent, he said, is to give the concentrations a "fresh look."

 

Many speakers on May 4 and at the following meeting on May 18 embraced the report's procedural and pragmatic plans. But several voiced concerns about the intellectual underpinnings of the recommendations and the ultimate content of the undergraduate curriculum. Buttenwieser University Professor Stanley H. Hoffmann called the report "an interesting document" but said "it does lack a rationale" for the goals of the education it sketches. He contrasted this report with the discussion preceding the introduction of General Education after World War II and the shaping of the Core.

Specifically, he regretted the absence of a "moral reasoning" component, a pillar of the Core, and feared that the vetting process (by which professors' Core-course proposals were reviewed to assure their contribution to general education) might be lost. Ford professor of the social sciences David Pilbeam, another former dean of undergraduate education, also worried about moving from the Core's dozens of courses, "collectively owned by the faculty," to far fewer Harvard College Courses — in effect, entrusting the balance of general education to departmental control. (Dean Gross estimated that there might be two or so Harvard College Courses per area, some perhaps year-long, some co-taught by faculty members from different disciplines.)

Loeb associate professor of the humanities Virginie Greene suggested that the curriculum report had too little sense of the past, of individual and cultural change through time. She also worried that the new priorities, if implemented superficially, would give students merely a gloss of "scientism" and "internationalism." James Engell, Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature, also raised fundamental issues about values and humanistic study. As "science challenges our conceptions of human nature," he said, "our conceptions of humanity need constantly to challenge how the science is applied." International education, in his view, embraced not just experiences abroad, but immersion in language, history, philosophy, literature, and the study of religion — or "culture." Quoting John Maynard Keynes on Alfred Marshall, he read to the assembled faculty members, "The master economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher — in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words."

Another literary scholar, Porter professor of medieval Latin Jan M. Ziolkowski, offered perhaps the broadest criticism of the curriculum reform. "Concentrations are to be cut down (some might say gutted)," he said, "because they are seen to stand on the wrong side of two alleged divides, one between mastery of knowledge and sophistication of thought and another between specialization...and rigorous and creative thinking....Such dichotomies do not apply in the concentrations with which I am most familiar." (As evidence, he later cited one of his students, Matthew R. Ciardiello, who had just won a Hoopes Prize for his thesis on a Latin poem and is now happily heading off to work as an investment banker.) As for general education, Ziolkowski professed "alarm" about the Harvard College Courses, whose appeal he could not grasp "despite repeated perusal of the relevant paragraphs."

Some of the concerns undoubtedly reflect the way the curriculum review was created. Members of the four working groups (concentrations, general education, pedagogy, students' overall academic experience) proceeded separately, although their chairs met on a steering committee with Deans Kirby, Gross, and Wolcowitz. No one was responsible for fashioning what Ziolkowski calls "an overarching philosophy about a liberal- arts education." Not all faculty members appear convinced that general education should be defined by divisional lines, which are more administrative than intellectual. And the final report contains recommendations that were not entirely the fruit of the working groups' labors. (Professor of Latin Kathleen M. Coleman told the faculty her group, on concentrations, did not address capping the number of courses in concentrations at 12, and that the lack of "cohesion" in some respects reflected a report collated for publication.)

 

Between the two faculty meetings, Dean Kirby described the curriculum review as proceeding from "the need to reassert the centrality of a liberal education in a research university in a way that really does go against every trend in the profession, here and everywhere else," as faculty members specialize and students declare their academic and career interests earlier. In that light, he said he was very encouraged by the faculty's spirited involvement.

President Lawrence H. Summers, who has repeatedly highlighted renewal of undergraduate education (for instance, in his Commencement address last year, July-August 2003, page 63), called the report "a very exciting framework." He pointed to the importance of several of its themes, including "empowering the students, bringing faculty and students closer together, strengthening education in the sciences, and engaging students with the world." He also noted some of the large issues involved in implementing the curriculum FAS finally adopts: expanding the faculty, building facilities for undergraduates to conduct research, creating the staff and facilities to satisfy the report's ambitions to integrate public service and the arts into the curriculum, and making arrangements to support students' international experiences.

Or as Kirby wrote, "There is, in short, more work to be done." He began that effort on May 18 by announcing the formation of new committees to develop specific proposals for general education and Harvard College Courses; to address problems in the teaching of basic science to generalists, concentrators, and premedical students; and to review the required expository writing course and the integration of writing and oral presentation skills with general education.

As those groups began their work, Kirby said, there would be many meetings and consultations to advance the reshaping of the curriculum. Alongside FAS's academic and physical planning, he said, he expected those conversations to enable him by this coming fall to "announce directions" for a substantially more ambitious expansion of the faculty than the current goal (10 percent growth, or 60 new positions, during this decade) — clearly a fundamental step toward many of the curriculum review's aims.

His larger vision, he said, remains to distinguish a Harvard education decisively from that of most universities, where "the purposes of the undergraduate college have been somewhat eclipsed by the larger research enterprise."