Harvard searches for its core


Harvard is revisiting its core curriculum, an encouraging sign. Through the last hundred years, Harvard has several times drifted away from a common core for its undergraduates, allowing them more freedom to craft their own education through electives. Several times Harvard has pulled back to redefine the basic elements of a Harvard education. The lead paragraph of the Boston Globe story linked above summarizes President Conant's 1940s reform effort: "There were certain things that any Harvard College graduate should know in order to contribute to society."

The Globe story reports on President Larry Summers efforts to address the core curriculum, and the resistance he's getting from some faculty members:

At one point, several professors say, Summers recalled a top Harvard art historian's reaction to his comment that he wished an old class, "Fine Arts 13,'' was still in the course catalogue to provide an introductory survey for students who probably wouldn't study art history again. Summers apparently liked this anecdote so much that he repeated it in his commencement speech last June. "Reacting with a mixture of consternation and hilarity, she wondered how I could possibly expect any self-respecting scholar to propel our students -- like a cannonball -- from 'Caves to Picasso' in one academic year,'' Summers said in the speech. He clearly hadn't cottoned to her view. Summers also told the English professors that the administration has received some letters from graduates asking why they didn't have the chance to take a Great Books-style course covering, say, Homer to Woolf. ...

All opinions are equal among the new curriculum working groups, but clearly Summers's opinions are more equal than others. At commencement, Summers made it clear he expects the review to lead to real reforms with a certain back-to-basics ring to them.

"All students,'' he argued in front of 5,000 graduating seniors, parents, and alumni, should "know how to compose a literate and persuasive essay,'' "know how to interpret a great humanistic text,'' "know how to connect history to the present,'' and "know -- they should genuinely understand at some basic level -- how unraveling the mysteries of the genome is transforming the nature of science.''

The soft oratory skills of many in Generation Y were no less a concern. "It is not clear to me that we do enough to make sure that our students graduate with the ability to speak cogently, to persuade others, and to reason to an important decision with moral and ethical implications,'' said Summers, himself an intimidating master of rhetorical combat who tends to make up his mind by arguing points and counterpoints with those whose intelligence and oratorical skills he respects.

There are indications that Summers wants the core to be about the student acquiring a fundamental body of knowledge, not just about vague notions like "ways of knowing" and "modes of inquiry". In an interview he said, "I do hope achieving knowledge in key areas would be a crucial element in the general education component.'' I will resist uttering a sarcastic "duh!" That idea may be obvious among us layfolk, but in academic circles it's rather controversial. First there's the question of what are the key areas in which an educated person should attain knowledge. Then there's the challenge posed by the deconstructionists to the very possibility of knowledge.

Harvard costs $37,928 per year for tuition, room, board, and fees, not counting travel, books, and other personal expenses. If my kid's going to pahk his cah in Hahvahd Yahd, "achieving knowledge in key areas" better be included in the price.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 24, 2003 12:49 AM.

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