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John Harvard's Journal

An Unconstrained Curriculum

January-February 2006

The College curriculum of the future has begun to come into focus, as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) this autumn started to discuss reports from the three-year review of the current course of study. Compared to undergraduate requirements today—general education through seven “Core curriculum” courses, a concentration, expository writing, and foreign language—the watchword of the new model appears to be almost radical freedom of student choice, at least by Harvard standards. The focal points for discussion were recommendations by the Committee on General Education, released November 2, and by FAS’s standing Educational Policy Committee (EPC), circulated in draft form two weeks earlier (most reports appear at www.fas.harvard.edu/curriculum-review).

The findings of the general-education group, cochaired by FAS dean William C. Kirby and Harvard College dean Benedict H. Gross, are basic to any definition of liberal arts. They bear most heavily on the Core’s “approaches to knowledge” courses introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After entertaining ideas ranging from a sequence of required, broadly integrative courses to new points of focus on international studies and the sciences (see “Addition by Subtraction,” July-August 2004, page 55, and “Educating Undergraduates,” September-October 2004, page 61), the committee opted for simplicity above all—what Kirby characterized as choice, incentive, and opportunity, not requirements. If adopted, the new curriculum would feature:

• Distribution. Students would have to take three one-semester courses in each of arts and humanities, study of societies, and science and technology. Because their individual concentrations would fall in one of the areas, the requirement would in effect be fulfilled by six one-semester departmental offerings, or optional, year-long “Courses in General Education,” intended to be “synoptic and integrative in approach, and topically both wide-ranging and of considerable depth.” (Once several such courses are created, the report suggested, the faculty “may wish to consider some form of requirement from among this group.”)

• Writing and speaking. A first-year one-semester course in writing would still be required. Other courses would offer students “structured opportunities for honing their skills in oral expression as well as written.”

• Foreign language. Proficiency in a language other than English would still be mandated, but would no longer need to be fulfilled in the first year.

• International experience. All students would be “expected” to pursue “a significant international experience”—an expectation well on the way to being fulfilled (see sidebar opposite).

The committee guidelines reflect differences of opinion and uncertainties about how to make the recommendations work. Three important issues concern matters of content and of processes to assure that students emerge from Harvard broadly educated.

“[D]espite the obvious importance of these skills and areas of knowledge,” the report noted, a majority of the committee declined to require courses in moral and ethical reasoning, one of the pillars of the Core curriculum, or in quantitative analysis, a new field introduced in 1999 following the last FAS review of the Core. The committee members did “strongly recommend” that students take such courses—and that faculty offer them. (Some faculty members who spoke at a November 22 FAS meeting also expressed concern over letting go the Core’s foreign-cultures requirement, and its exposure to history, at a time when students are being encouraged to study abroad.)

Such recommendations to students suggest the crucial practical problems in assembling a suitable curriculum. “With appropriate guidance and advice,” the report noted, distribution “affords the opportunity” to suit general education to individual students’ interests. The students say they want that freedom and will use it well (see Student Essays: On the Purpose and Structure of a Harvard Education at the website). But academic advising has long been considered a very weak link in the chain. A separate committee has advanced ideas for wholesale changes in advising, contingent on faculty participation, lest the archetypal physics concentrator, as the Crimson put it, fill out his schedule with “three narrowly focused courses each in government and music.”

Those faculty members must also commit themselves to creating courses suitable for general education. The committee observed that the Core created a “governance structure” through which professors joined to recruit, review, and assess courses—“an ambitious and largely successful process of peer review for general education,” and no mean feat for a faculty with strong incentives to attend to their own scholarship and their graduate students. A new standing committee would “assure that sufficient courses be offered that are particularly appropriate for general education.”

To make room for students to explore, the EPC proposed several constraints on concentrations—and immediately backed off a bit when faculty colleagues resisted limits on their teaching of disciplines. Professor of economics David I. Laibson presented all the recommendations at faculty meetings on October 25 and November 8. The most significant mandates are deferring students’ concentration choice to the middle of sophomore year, from the end of freshman year; limiting concentration course requirements to 12 (from as many as 14, or even more); and creating “secondary fields,” a system of minors comprising four to six courses as determined by departments, in lieu of joint concentrations (which require dual-subject theses).

By the second day of discussion, after objections particularly from science professors, the 12-course rule had been softened to guidance: departments are to try to winnow down requirements and prerequisites so students can explore the curriculum, fit in study abroad if desired, and even pursue those “secondary fields.” The joint concentrations would be grandfathered. And although the committee encouraged group projects and other nontraditional forms of “capstone experiences,” the EPC’s previous skepticism about senior theses was moderated. Laibson and other members also explicitly recognized the role of much better advising in making deferred concentration choice and other presumed benefits of curricular freedom work. Resolving those details will precede legislation, presumably by this spring.