Harvard reviews Core classes

If the latest in a series of proposed general education requirements is adopted by the faculty, Harvard undergraduates will study specific subject areas instead of the broad distributional areas Yale students study.

The Task Force on General Education unveiled its preliminary report last Wednesday, which proposes a system of thematic subject areas — different from the current Core Curriculum’s focus on “approaches to knowledge” — and a new focus on students’ roles within a global society. The report is the most recent product of a four-year curricular review that has already outlasted the university president who initiated it, Larry Summers. Some Harvard students said the recently-announced plan has promise, but others criticized its thematic approach.

A committee of six professors and two undergraduates — appointed last June by William Kirby, former dean of the faculty — worked over the summer to prepare the report. The committee recommended that students take seven courses in five thematic areas — cultural traditions, ethics, the United States and the world, reason and faith, and life and physical sciences. They also recommended two to four courses in three “critical skills” groups, writing, foreign language and analytical reasoning.

Societal context will be emphasized in all the subject areas, Louis Menand, English professor at Harvard and co-chair of the Task Force, said.

“[The goal is] to enable undergraduates to put all the learning they are doing at Harvard … in the context of the people they will be and the lives they will lead after college,” the Task Force members said in the report’s introduction.

Menand said the proposed system marks an important move away from the current Core.

“At a minimum, [the Core] needed to be refurbished and probably replaced,” he said. “[The new system] resembles the Core in that it requires specific subjects, but otherwise it’s completely different.”

Last November, the Committee on General Education, a precursor to the Task Force, released a final version of its own report, calling for students to take three courses each in humanities, social sciences and the sciences. But faculty response to this proposal — which was similar to Yale’s current system of distributional requirements — was lukewarm, Menand said.

“I think there was a broad feeling last year that we ought to take another look and come up with something a little more substantive,” Menand said.

The Task Force will meet with members of the faculty tomorrow and will receive feedback on the report. Menand said if the faculty approves the proposed plan, it would likely be with at least some changes, although he suspects the subject areas will be welcomed.

Harvard comparative literature professor Judith Ryan, who has been a critic of the Core, said the new proposal is a distinct improvement over both the Core and last November’s proposed distributional requirements.

“It’s exciting because it’s a complete rethinking of the categories we might use in constructing a general education program,” Ryan said in an e-mail. “In this way, it differs from the previous committee’s report, which tried to mix a broad distribution system with a set of overarching, interdisciplinary courses that were not very clearly defined.”

Currently, only classes designed for the Core Curriculum and a few regular departmental courses can be used to meet requirements. The new report emphasizes the need to offer more courses in each subject area.

Some students said an increase in the number of classes that can be used to meet requirements is critical, as Core courses tend to be crowded.

“All I hope for is that when they do implement this, that the subject areas offer more courses,” Harvard junior Michael Levin-Gesundheit said.

Jeremy Singer-Vine, another Harvard junior, said some students are skeptical of the new plan.

“It seems a lot more topical, based in current events,” he said. “The student body is split on the philosophy behind that, whether going to a liberal arts school is about the abstract and general or about gaining tools.”

In 2003 Yale finished its own curricular review, which took two years to complete. The review reduced the number of distributional groups from four to three while adding requirements in quantitative reasoning, writing and foreign language.

Comments