Faculty Mulls Curriculum

About 60 administrators, faculty members and students gathered yesterday to talk language requirements, faculty responsibilities and the changing role of education in a series of panel discussions organized by the curricular review committee chairs.

The event sought to explore the question of how cultural, social and academic changes since the end of World War II—and Harvard’s first curricular review—should affect the re-visioning of the College’s curriculum.

“The purpose of this symposium is to ask ourselves how what we are doing in this curricular review is relevant to what is going on around us,” said Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilization Peter K. Bol, who is co-chair of the review’s committee to study general education. “We were concerned we weren’t asking the larger questions.”

Bol said that he would try to make sure the discussion continued beyond the day-long event.

“This is the beginning of a sustained conversation that will go on between all members of the faculty,” he said.

He also said the process of generating recommendations on the curriculum would take longer than the year Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 had previously forecasted.

“If you say we need to be prepared to rethink everything, you can’t” expect a one year process, said Bol. “It changes too many things, it upsets too many apple-carts to do it quickly. It takes time.”

Each panelist addressed the packed Thompson Room with ideas pertaining to their designated theme—either “What We Teach,” “Culture, Economy, and the Curriculum” or “The Students We Teach.”

University President Lawrence H. Summers, for example, spoke about leaps in technology and about the analysis of efficiency.

Following their prepared comments on the progress of knowledge in the world at large, a majority of speakers discussed the directions in which they thought the review should go.

Ideas raised ran the gamut from dramatically increasing foreign language requirements to slashing or even removing science requirements for non-science concentrators. Also discussed was finding a way to give credit for public service and the desirability of an increase in vocational studies.

Each panel was composed of faculty members unassociated with any of the four curricular review committees, marking the first effort to bring faculty perspectives at large to the attention of the review committees in a face-to-face forum.

Evelyn Higginbotham, professor of history and African and African-American studies, said the increasing diversity of the student body made clear the need for greater international experience.

“I am aware of a global view on the part of our students,” she said. “Students should be encouraged to study abroad and gain language skills.”

Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Master of Kirkland House Tom Conley was more specific.

“We need to strongly encourage study abroad, to make it almost a requirement,” he said. “We must encourage students to be polyglot and amphibious...we should aim students toward non-Western cultures and toward languages with different alphabets and structures.”

Mallinkrodt Professor of Physics and Leverett Master Howard Georgi suggested that instead of impressing science, or at least the mathematical sciences, upon humanities and social science majors, the common denominator should be more basic.

“Some students have such a phobia of the mathematical sciences that it’s hard to get by,” he said. “If it’s a question of what to do with our resources, I’d rather students be able to parse a sentence, which is quantitative enough for many students.”

Summers spoke to the increasing trend of preprofessional studies.

“I wonder if what has been called the ‘vocationalization’ of our schools is not a positive trend,” he said. “There is now a greater capacity to impart knowledge than there had ever been before.”

And though nothing like a consensus regarding the Core curriculum emerged from the discussions, panelists suggested changing it in a multitude of ways.

“The present Core structure has been very valuable, but for some of our best students, it’s an annoyance” said Georgi. “A better system would be to allow such students to replace the entire Core requirement with a serious minor far from their main area of study.”

Daniel Schrag, professor of earth and planetary sciences, suggested that what is important to teach in the Core is what is socially relevant.

“Students respond to what is interesting to them and is partly determined by what is culturally important,” he said, adding that the reviewers needed to find a way to “engage students with what is interesting while not losing the foundations” of a general education system.

Curricular review committee co-chair and Jones Professor of American Studies Lizabeth Cohen said she thought the series of discussions extremely valuable.

“We need to have more of these discussions,” she said. “I felt very impressed by the intelligence and interest of my colleagues. It’s clear there are differences of opinion. It was great to bring in 15 faculty members who haven’t been part of the process.”

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at krug@fas.harvard.edu.