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John Harvard's Journal

College Curriculum Change Completed

July-August 2007

During the second weekend in May, just before the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) met on May 15 for its final discussion of a proposed new general-education component of the undergraduate curriculum, the New Yorker mailed its new weekly issue to subscribers. The lead Comment item, titled "The Graduates," was a reflection on the meritocratic scramble to get into college, and students' experience there, written by Louis Menand, Bass professor of English and American literature and language and a staff writer for the magazine. Of local interest, he co-chaired the task force that drafted the general-education proposal, then facing its sixth consecutive week of review by a faculty that usually meets monthly—a sign of the engagement in rethinking undergraduate study, and the difficulty of refashioning it.

During the debate, Menand and other task-force members kept silent, deferring to colleagues. But it is impossible not to sense some of what he and they intended in his New Yorker essay, when he wrote of college, “One thing that might be hoped for…is that, somewhere along the way, every student had a moment of vertigo (without unpleasant side effects). In commencement speeches and the like, people say that education is all about opportunity and expanding your horizons. But some part of it is about shrinking people, about teaching them that they are not the measure of everything.…We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good.”

Eight Steps to Gen Ed

  • aesthetic and interpretive understanding
  • culture and belief
  • empirical and mathematical reasoning
  • ethical reasoning
  • science of living systems
  • science of the physical universe
  • societies of the world
  • the United States in the world

The faculty’s vote on May 15—168 in favor, 14 opposed, 11 abstentions—puts in place a new set of course requirements as the successor to the current Core curriculum (see “General Education, Finally Defined," March-April 2007, page 68). The new curriculum aims to connect a student's "liberal education" with "life beyond college," prescribing a one-semester course in each of eight areas.

The faculty intends this work to prepare students for “civic engagement”; to teach them to “understand themselves as products of—and participants in—traditions of art, ideas, and values”; to ready them to “respond critically and constructively to change”; and to develop their “understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do.” The ways in which each area of study are expected to achieve these goals are specified in the motion the faculty adopted; the full text, which also covers the rationale for the program and its administrative apparatus, appears at www.harvardmagazine.com/go/gen_ed.

Arriving at this point was not easy. The curriculum review as a whole has taken four years. In that time, students have been presented with new options for study abroad, secondary fields (minors), foreign-language citations, revamped introductory courses in the sciences and humanities, and lessened concentration requirements. They have been given more time to choose their major fields of study, accompanied by much-enhanced academic advising to help them make their decisions (see "Advising Adventures").

But getting faculty members, who specialize in disciplines, to agree on a successor to the Core was the toughest challenge. During the last, intense meetings over general education, serious debates took place about the role of historical study, foreign languages, and other fields. (Many of these concerns were addressed with amendments.) Alford professor of natural religion, moral philosophy, and civil polity Thomas Scanlon voiced a minority concern that the curriculum, by emphasizing the connection between the rest of students’ studies and their lives, was insufficiently scholarly, perhaps even anti-intellectual. Former dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis, McKay professor of computer science, lamented that the general-education proposal, whose rationale and substance he applauded, was considered apart from the rest of the curriculum, and thus was “too much of a good thing.” Its eight requirements exceed the seven in the Core, and so have the effect of lessening student choice, countering one of the chief aims of the curricular review as a whole.

Sorting out how, exactly, general education will work—what courses will qualify, how they will relate to other departmental offerings—will be a demanding task. It is entrusted to a new standing committee, chaired by a senior faculty member (as the Core committee is not), but not the FAS dean, and composed of faculty as well as student representatives.

Interim president Derek Bok hailed the faculty’s vote—along with the other measures adopted in recent years—as the culmination of the most comprehensive effort to improve undergraduate education in Harvard’s history. Bok spoke from experience: he has written a book on the subject, and he was president in 1978, when the faculty adopted the Core curriculum by a vote of 182 to 65.

President-elect Drew Gilpin Faust, a professor of history as well, refrained from speaking during the weeks of legislative debate and from voting, given her forthcoming role and her view that curriculum design is the faculty’s domain. During the May 15 discussion, however, she did rise—prompting Bok to ask, to much laughter, “Could you state your name?” Faust advised her colleagues that it would be “my privilege and my responsibility” as president to work with the future FAS dean to implement the faculty’s program, and to secure the resources required to bring the newly envisioned courses into being. The undergraduate academic experience, she said, was central both to Harvard University and to her plans for her presidency.

Acting interim FAS dean David Pilbeam immediately began soliciting the names of faculty members who will serve on the standing committee. He aims to have it established by the time Dean Michael D. Smith takes office on July 15.

The ambitious scope of its charge is perhaps encompassed in the following faculty formulation of its hopes for the College experience, including its new general-education sequence—a line of argument Menand clearly sounded both on the task force and in his popular writing: “[T]he aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves. A liberal education aims to accomplish these things by questioning assumptions, by inducing self-reflection, by teaching students to think critically and analytically, by exposing them to the sense of alienation produced by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural formations and with phenomena that exceed their, and even our own, capacity fully to understand.”