Slow, Maybe, But Steady
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Harvard's effort at curriculum reform has been its success thus far in moving along without serious interruption. Dean Rosovsky and James Q. Wilson, Shattuck Professor of Government and chairman of the task force on the core curriculum, have generally revealed themselves as masters of tact in their desire to avoid setting up the backs of any possible faculty opposition.
Messrs. Rosovsky and Wilson have kept their project moving at such a steady pace by avoiding open debate on the details of their proposal to tighten up the present General Education requirements for undergraduates until they have thoroughly thrashed them out with concerned faculty. Little wonder that none of the key figures in the core curriculum want to say much about what's gone on this summer.
After several months of debate on the general idea of imposing a core, the Faculty authorized Rosovsky this spring to appoint five small committees of faculty members, charged small committees of faculty members, charged with looking into five possible core areas over the summer. Those committees are now in the process of piecing together their separate working papers-discussion possible course offerings in "Letters and Arts," "History," "Social and Philosophical Analysis," "Mathematics and Science," and "Foreign Languages and Culture"-into an integrated whole, which should be released to the public as early as October.
Rosovsky, Wilson and Charles P. Whitlock, associate dean of the Faculty and task force coordinator, agree that things are moving along even more quickly than they had expected. Last spring, Whitlock had predicted a two-year delay in implementing the core; the three honchos now say the Faculty may well approve the initial changes in the requirement structure this year, although they pledge they won't drastically affect any students who are unable to alter their schedules in time to graduate.
The integrated paper "won't contain any major surprises," Rosovsky promises, "but it will be the first time people can really look at the thing." Now, he says, "we can lift the discussion out of the realm of general, abstract discussion into specific regulation."
But while the Faculty will probably find it easier to discuss details than to pontificate on the abstract goals of a liberal education-a topic that provoked almost endless discussion in Faculty meetings this past year-it is also likely that faculty members will begin to hear the sounds of a few toes being stepped on. "You can't have a basic core that includes everything," Rosovsky says, adding, in a moment of rather rare candor, "the heart [of the proposal] is that some things are more important to a basic liberal arts education than others."
Yet it will be asking a great deal of faculty members to admit that their field is too esoteric to be considered an essential part of a college career-particularly because the more important a department is considered, the more staff members it can hire, and the more time faculty members already at Harvard can spend on their all-important research.
So far, Wilson says, no one has considered in depth the problem of finding teaching staff for the basic core courses, a problem that has caused similar efforts at curricular reform to run aground before. If the required courses are taught by less-than-stellar professors, nearly everyone agrees that students will regard such requirements as chores rather than as essential components of their education.
It is this kind of mechanics, however, that Rosovsky will scrutinize before the core is implemented (if it is-people involved in the discussions invariably add that caveat; while the Faculty has reached a reasonable consensus on the need for stricter requirements, it reserves the right to change its collective mind when it sees the real thing). When Gen Ed was first set up in the 1940s, it was a pathbreaking step in liberal arts education, copied all over the country by other colleges. In the enthusiasm of the moment, Rosovsky says, the Faculty didn't worry about mechanics, and the program became increasingly less organized as course offerings proliferated. In these more cynical '70s, Rosovsky says, reformers are likely to proceed with greater caution, trying to sidestep the pitfalls before they arise so they won't have to clean up the mess later on.
That caution is fairly obvious at the moment. All that anyone will really say about the working committees at the moment is that they're moving along smoothly, and that their ideas will be presented to the Faculty with only minor modifications. The wheels of the core curriculum may not be grinding as slowly as everyone first suspected, but they are probably grinding just as fine. Certainly they are grinding more silently.