Harvard is considering replacing its undergraduate core curriculum with a system of distributional requirements very similar to that in place at Yale.
The Harvard Committee on General Education proposed that future classes of Harvard students be required to take three courses in each of three distribution groups that parallel those at Yale — Arts and Humanities, Study of Societies, and Science and Technology. Like Yale’s, the Harvard plan also includes writing and foreign language requirements. To be implemented, the plan — part of the Harvard College Curricular Review — must be approved by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“The need for a distribution requirement is perhaps especially important at Harvard, where students often arrive prepared to become the best at something or other,” the report said.
Distribution requirements encourage experimentation while allowing students’ interests to guide their studies, the report said. If the new plan is implemented, the requirements could be satisfied by regular departmental offerings rather than special general education courses. Currently, graduates must pass seven core courses in the subject areas that are furthest from their concentration.
Astronomy professor Charles Bailyn, who served on the Committee for Yale College Education that designed the new graduation requirements for the Class of 2009 and subsequent years, said the distributional system makes students study subjects outside their specialties, but still allows them to maintain flexibility.
“It’s not clear that a series of strict requirements is the best way to get people to learn,” Bailyn said. “The broader we keep these things, the more likely it is that students will take courses because they are interested in them and not because they are required to be there.”
The Harvard proposal does not include a quantitative reasoning requirement, one of the reforms Yale implemented this year. The committee at Harvard discussed such a requirement, but eventually rejected it to avoid imposing too many different requirements, the report said.
“There was honest disagreement within the committee on this point, with a significant minority in favor of including such requirements in some form,” the report said.
Bailyn said Yale’s decision to implement a quantitative reasoning requirement was straightforward.
“In particular, it seemed very closely analogous to what the humanities and social sciences were thinking about writing,” he said. “It was a skill that spanned over disciplines.”
The suggested changes would make Harvard and Yale’s programs nearly identical, but even under the current system Yale students said they saw little difference between the academic requirements when they were applying to college.
Josh Bone ’08 was accepted to both Harvard and Yale, but he said graduation requirements did not affect his decision to attend Yale. He said he wanted requirements that were not too strenuous, but both Yale and Harvard seemed to fit that ideal.
Lauren Henry ’09 said when she chose between Harvard and Yale, the core curriculum was not a factor.
“I wasn’t all adverse to it,” she said. “I really thought the core requirements at Yale and Harvard were really very similar.”
But Tony Au ’09 said the core curriculum significantly affected his decision to attend Yale, because he thought the core had many more requirements.
The Harvard committee also proposed the creation of optional broad introductory courses to expose interested students to the foundational texts in different disciplines.