Harvard Moves Ahead on Curricular Reform

Panel's final general education plan keeps requirements on the U.S. and science, adds humanities, and eases away from religion.
February 8, 2007

In October, a faculty panel at Harvard University issued a draft plan to change the undergraduate curricular requirements for the first time since 1979, proposing that certain broad subjects be required, while giving choice within those areas for a range of courses. On Wednesday, the panel released the final version of its proposals, which now go to the faculty for consideration and expected approval (with tweaks always possible). The final version keeps the basic framework from October, but adds one broad topic in the humanities and formally removes the initial designation of religion as its own required topic.

While there have been plenty of quibbles over the version released in October, it has generally received praise -- both in Cambridge and elsewhere, where Harvard's general education choices are always eyed as a potential model.

The approach outlined by the panel would replace very broad categories like foreign cultures and science with considerably more specific areas for study. All undergraduates would have to take a course that focused on the United States and the world, for example. At the same time, the faculty panel avoided an overly rigid formula full of required courses (likely to have been unpopular with the students and viewed as impractical by professors) and also avoided a return to distribution requirements, which while providing breadth also allow students to ignore many areas they don't want to study.

Both Derek Bok, Harvard's president, and Jeremy R. Knowles, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, issued statements praising the report. Bok said that the recommendations would create "a thoughtful and coherent structure to further the aims of a strong undergraduate education." While Harvard is expected to name a new president shortly, and the curricular review started under the former president, Lawrence H. Summers, the turnover is not expected to delay or derail the process.

When the panel presented its draft plan in October, it would have required students to take seven courses in the following categories:

  • Cultural traditions and cultural change.
  • The ethical life.
  • The United States and the world (one each in the U.S. and the world).
  • Reason and faith.
  • Science and technology (one in a life science and one in a physical science).

While making some changes in nomenclature, the committee made two larger changes in the final version. It added a new humanities category and -- as it did in an intermediary draft -- broadened the "reason and faith" requirement (which was seen by some as too focused on religion) to the category of "culture and belief."

Now the plan calls for students to take one course in each of the following eight categories:

  • Aesthetic and interpretive understanding.
  • Culture and belief.
  • Empirical reasoning.
  • Ethical reasoning.
  • Science of living systems.
  • Science of the physical universe.
  • Societies of the world.
  • The United States and the world.

The first category is seen as a boosting of the humanities portion of the new curriculum. "Reading a poem, looking at a painting, and listening to a piece of music are complex capacities that build an informed sensitivity, an interaction between the intellect and the senses," the report says, in explaining the significance of this requirement. "Students need to know how to interpret cultural works -- to know, for example, how to distinguish the literal and the symbolic, something that is crucial to evaluating and making sense of everything from religious texts and lyric poems to pop songs and motion pictures."

Courses in this category, the report says, should "develop students' skills in criticism," "introduce students to primary texts and/or works of art in one or more media," and when possible include out-of-classroom visits to exhibits, performances, readings, etc.

One of the proposals in the October draft that received considerable attention was the requirement for study of reason and faith, which would have required in some way study of religion. That was amended -- first in December and finalized Wednesday -- to a requirement on culture and belief. The proposal to focus on religion drew criticism from some prominent Harvard professors, such as Steven Pinker, who wrote in The Harvard Crimson that the proposal was flawed in logically and rhetorically.

"First, the word 'faith' in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for 'religion,' " he wrote. "A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words."

Pinker, a professor of psychology, added: "Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like 'faith' and 'reason' are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith -- believing something without good reasons to do so -- has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for 'Astronomy and Astrology' or 'Psychology and Parapsychology.' It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.

While the final report of the Harvard panel did change the name and broaden the category, the report still includes a strong argument for the study of religion. "Religion has been, and continues to be, a force shaping identity and behavior throughout the world. Harvard is a secular institution, but religion is an important part of our students' lives," the report says. "When they get to college, students often struggle to sort out the relationship between their own beliefs and practices and those of fellow students, and the relationship of religious belief to the resolutely secular world of the academy."


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