Faculty To Decrease Required Courses
The Core program has seen the addition of a Quantitative Reasoning requirement and the end of the Advanced Placement exam exemption for Science A and B courses, while the Committee on Undergraduate Education has also raised the bar for the foreign language requirement.
But in the past year, Faculty and administrators have recognized that a good liberal arts education requires flexibility as well as rigor.
"You should hope that in the undergraduate years you should have a chance to goof off, in an academic sense," says Peter B. Machinist `66, head tutor for the Near Eastern Languages and Literatures Department. "You know, life is too short. Let's make as much of it as you can."
Over the past year, individual concentrations have been reexamining their requirements, and by next fall many will announce that they will be demanding less of new concentrators.
Less Is More
The push to make the average undergraduate concentration a little more flexible began two years ago, in the spring of 1997, when the Faculty adopted a proposal by former Loeb associate professor in psychology Michael E. Hasselmo `84 to urge academic departments to look into reducing or capping their requirements.
"Rather than 'bean-counting,' Faculty were asked to engage in an intellectual exercise, thinking about what it means for a student to gain a liberal arts education that includes concentration in that field and which requirements are really essential," wrote Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz in an e-mail message.
Some Faculty felt that students' educations were dominated by their concentration requirements.
"The problem lies in concentration requirements, which tend to be excessive at Harvard," says Professor of German Peter J. Burgard. "[This is] a natural result, perhaps, of the tendency to think that one's own field is the most important."
Now, a year later, academic departments, prompted by the Educational Policy Committee, are at various stages in the process of reevaluating where they stand on concentration requirement reform.
The College has asked for departmental progress reports by the end of this semester and will look for final decisions in the fall.
With some concentrations feeling that they already offer enough freedom for undergraduates and with others feeling like their requirements are not enough, there is no general consensus on what is to be done.
Not in My Backyard
While applauding the overall effort, some concentrations feel they offer enough flexibility already and do not need to change.
Chris L. Foote, associate professor of economics and director for undergraduate studies for the department, says the economics concentration is fine the way it is.
"We've talked about this and basically we don't feel that the economics requirements are that onerous, especially compared to other departments," he says. "Other departments are probably concerned that students get all of the tools they need in the discipline, but we feel that students can learn plenty in the courses they are required to take."
Foote says that the economics concentration, which includes three related-field half-courses in its 13 half-course non-honors requirements, offers enough freedom for students to get a diverse education within the concentration itself.
"You can get three related fields just by getting up in the morning," Foote says.
Concentrations such as physics and social studies have also not found the need to reduce requirements, with head tutors noting that their disciplines demand a strong background in and deep understanding in the field.
Administrators of the classics and linguistics concentrations also see no need to reduce requirements, noting that the departments already offer the chance to fully explore a liberal arts education within the concentration's framework.
Other departments that are not planning on reducing requirements for undergraduates include the Mathematics and History Departments, which require 12 half-courses for non-honors candidates, and the Government Department, which requires 13 half-courses for the non-honors track.
While some concentrations are content to cap requirements, administrators in at least one department say wish they could expand requirements.
William M. Gelbart, professor of molecular and cellular biology and head tutor of the biology concentration, said in an e-mail message that, although they are still evaluating the biology requirements, he does not foresee any changes.
"There is nothing that has come out of the discussions to date that suggests that the total number of required concentration courses will diminish," he says. "Indeed, given the explosion of information in the bio-medical sciences that is occurring now, I regret that we cannot require even more concentration courses of our concentrators."
Ready to Help
But while some concentrations have been hesitant to adjust, others have willingly taken steps to reduce or cap requirements, but making sure that educational quality does not decline.
Along with women's studies and Slavic languages and literatures, the Departments of Germanic Languages and Literatures (GLL) and of Romance Languages and Literatures (RLL) have reduced concentration requirements.
The GLL Department was the first to take the plunge, Burgard says, approving and submitting a reduction in concentration requirements during the last academic year. The Educational Policy Committee approved the change last spring, and the policy went into effect for all new concentrators.
After cutting four requirements from the books, the German literature track now stands at nine half-courses, while the honors track requires 11.
"This means six or seven more electives...than in some concentrations—enough, if one wanted, to undertake what would be almost a double concentration," Burgard says.
"We were able to make this change without sacrificing too much," he adds. Mainly, we eliminated the category of 'related courses,' deciding that our students should have room for electives instead. Of course, some depth of study is sacrificed..., but for what we consider a worthy goal."
According to Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France Susan R. Suleiman, the RLL Department has reduced required courses in both the honors and non-honors tracks by two courses, from 16 and 14, respectively, to 14 and 12.
"We have eliminated the 'related courses' requirement, keeping everything else the same," Suleiman says. "This will allow students who want a 'deeper' knowledge to pursue it via more RLL or related courses..., but will also allow greater flexibility in electives for those students who prefer a broader coverage in their undergraduate years."
Machinist says the NELC Department may follow the lead of RLL and GLL, reducing concentration requirements by one course from 13 to 12 for non-honors and 14 to 13 for honors.
Administrators say they hope students will appreciate the increased flexibility in some concentrations.John Paul Rollert `00, chair of the Undergraduate Council's Student Affairs Committee and a member of the Committee for Undergraduate Education, lauds the efforts to reduce concentration requirements.
"I think it's a great idea," Rollert says. "To me, an elemental part of any liberal arts education is exploring different areas of study. As it stands now in a lot of concentrations, that is not a lot of choice you have."