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As Harvard Goes …

4 minute read
Jeremy Caplan

The easiest way to start an academic brawl is to ask what an educated person should know. The last time Harvard University tackled that question was in 1978, when it established its Core Curriculum, which focused less on content than on mastering ways of thinking. Like Harvard’s so-called Red Book standards of 1945, which helped inspire a generation of distribution requirements, the core had broad resonance at other major universities. Now, after a four-year process initiated under controversial former president Lawrence Summers, the nation’s most famous university has come up with a whole new set of guidelines that proponents say will help clarify how liberal-arts subjects like philosophy and art history shed light on the hurly-burly of more quotidian topics. “Students will be more motivated to learn if they see a connection with the kinds of problems, issues and questions they will encounter in later life,” says interim president Derek Bok. Harvard isn’t the only institution rethinking what and how to teach its students. Yale, Rutgers and the universities of Pennsylvania and Texas have recently made similar changes, and now that Harvard has joined the club, others are likely to follow.

Harvard’s new curriculum establishes eight primary subject areas that all students will have to take. The categories include Societies of the World, encompassing subjects like anthropology and international relations; Ethical Reasoning, a practical approach to philosophy; and the United States in the World, which will likely span multiple departments, including sociology and economics. The plan, which is expected to be formally approved by the faculty in May, won’t go into effect before September 2009 at the earliest.

But the school is already preemptively dismissing charges that it is embracing purely practical knowledge. “We do not propose that we teach the headlines,” said a report published on Feb. 7 by the curriculum committee, comprising professors, students and a dean. “Only that the headlines, along with much else in our students’ lives, are among the things that a liberal education can help students make better sense of.”

One point likely to raise eyebrows among academic traditionalists is the rationale for the newly mandated study of Empirical Reasoning, which will cover math, logic and statistics. It is being added, the committee report says, because graduates of Harvard “will have to decide, for example, what medical treatments to undergo, when a defendant in court has been proven guilty, whether to support a policy proposal and how to manage their personal finances.” Does this mean balancing a checkbook is on a par with balancing equations? What about learning for learning’s sake? What about the study of history, which Harvard will no longer require, even though its recently announced new president, Drew Gilpin Faust–the first woman to head the institution–is a renowned historian?

The plan’s advocates say the curriculum is flexible enough that students will still be able to take courses in whatever interests them, be it ancient art or cutting-edge science. What’s crucial, they say, is that the new approach emphasizes the kind of active learning that gets students thinking and applying knowledge. “Just as one doesn’t become a marathon runner by reading about the Boston Marathon,” says the committee report, “so, too, one doesn’t become a good problem solver by listening to lectures or reading about statistics.” Acknowledging how important extracurricular activities have become on campus, the report calls for a stronger link between the endeavors students pursue inside and outside the classroom. Those studying poverty, for example, absorb more if they also volunteer at a homeless shelter, suggests Bok, whose 2005 book, Our Underachieving Colleges, cites a finding that students remember just 20% of the content of class lectures a week later.

There were, however, some contemporary concerns that didn’t make the final cut. In October, before finalizing its recommendations, the committee proposed mandating the study of “reason and faith.” That drew sharp criticism from faculty members like psychology professor Steven Pinker. “The juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing,” he wrote in the Harvard Crimson. “But universities are about reason, pure and simple.” Though 71% of incoming students say they attend religious services and many already elect to study religion, the committee gave in, ultimately substituting a “culture and belief” requirement. It turned out to be more practical.

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