Harvard’s Long Shadow

Unlike in 1978, current review may not cause stir in academia

About 30 years after Harvard revolutionized higher education by introducing the Core curriculum, university administrators across the country say they are not expecting anything as radical or as influential from the current curricular review.

Experts from several institutions say that the increasingly competitive field of education has compelled many elite schools to engage in reform fairly frequently—ensuring that change happens regularly and making any one school’s reform less powerful.

And they say that the diverging cultures among different schools mean that the results of present-day curricular reviews are often unique to the schools that conduct them.

In fact, many of the schools that followed Harvard’s lead after its 1978 introduction of the Core do not expect to amend their curricula based on the results of Harvard’s ongoing review.


Harvard’s last major curricular review, which ran from 1974 to 1978, introduced the Core curriculum, a set of requirements that focused on distinct approaches to knowledge.

While this review’s recommendations will suggest replacing the Core with a distribution requirement that can be fulfilled either by departmental classes or broad survey classes known as Harvard College Courses, at its inception, the Core represented a dramatic approach to general education.

“I have colleagues in China who have looked to us as a model,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby told The Crimson in 2002.

Some schools in this country adopted specific areas of Harvard’s Core as part of their general education requirements.

“There seemed to be general interest in encouraging the study of foreign cultures as part of a general education,” Phyllis Keller, author of Getting at the Core, writes in an e-mail. “I believe that a few schools did pick up on the moral reasoning part of the Core.”

But Keller says she believes that Harvard’s implementation of the Core served primarily as an inspiration to other schools struggling to enact their own reforms.

“Harvard’s influence came, in my view, from the fact that we actually succeeded in getting considerable support from faculty for our proposals. That gave heart to reformers on other campuses to try again,” Keller writes.

“It wasn’t so much the particulars of the Core as the reaffirmation of general education requirements that was the main source of whatever outside influence the Core had,” Keller adds.

Former University President Derek C. Bok says that Harvard’s introduction of the Core drew both praise and criticism from others in higher education.

“It contributed to the ongoing debate about curricular reform, which is always a good thing,” Bok says.

Bok adds that one important result of Harvard’s 1978 review was that it generated new enthusiasm for undergraduate education at a time when Harvard and other universities had been increasingly focused on research and on teaching graduate students.

“If a curricular review is handled well...what you can hope to get out of it is a sense of ownership on the part of the faculty,” Bok says.

“You always work more enthusiastically if you understand the curriculum,” he continues, referring to the energy that the 1978 review created among Faculty members.

In its recent curricular review, Yale considered adopting a Core curriculum similar to Harvard’s, though Yale eventually chose to revise its established system of distribution requirements.

Other aspects of Harvard’s curriculum have also served as a model for elite universities.

Princeton unveiled a first-year writing program three years ago similar to Harvard’s Expository Writing program, says Princeton’s Associate Dean of the College Hank Dobin.


Administrators from schools nationwide say their institutions feel a regular pressure to reform.

“Curricular reform in higher education tends to come in waves, the timing of which is related to advances in knowledge, changing intellectual, social and moral interests and values,” Keller writes in an e-mail.

Dobin suggests that these pressures are felt particularly by elite schools.

“I would say that schools that are considered leading edge...feel a self-imposed obligation to lead the way. They want to reflect advances in knowledge in the curriculum,” Dobin says.

Stanford’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education John C. Bravman agrees that top schools have a responsibility to think about curricular reform.

“I think it’s incumbent upon any cutting edge institution to be constantly considering what we do, when there are things we can change,” Bravman says.

Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler says she believes that the impulse to reform is an element of human nature.

“There’s some desire in human beings to redo everything in every generation—departments, general education programs, administrative organization....After 25 years one feels the need for change,” Vendler says.

For renowned liberal arts colleges, reform is something of an imperative, says Dean of the College at the University of Chicago John W. Boyer.

“I think that small private colleges are always thinking about the curriculum...the faculty of the top private research universities also should be thinking about what they’re doing,” Boyer says.

In a world where schools compete for students and faculty members, curricular reform can attract people to a university, though it is unlikely to be the sole attraction for an already elite school, according to Bravman.

“The education market as a whole has become more competitive, and parents and students view it as a marketplace now, more than they used to,” Bravman says.

After the Yale curricular review report was released in 2003, Yale Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw said that he thought curricular changes at Yale could make some prospective students more interested in the school.

“The curricular changes, once understood, will be looked at as being very progressive,” Shaw told the Yale Daily News. “I think that it will be very attractive to future applicants.”

Dobin says that curricular reform may also attract a subset of faculty members, including younger professors.

But Keller says she believes that the factors that lead schools to reform are no more prevalent today than they were at the time of Harvard’s last major curricular review.

“Certainly schools in the ’60s and ’70s felt the same pressures as they do today. I don’t think there is more reform in the air today than there was in the 1970s,” she writes.


Though all schools may feel a pressure to reform, recent changes put in place at each school depend on individual institutions’ cultures and histories rather than on a more universal precedent.

“I think it’s natural that like any type of institutions, universities should carefully review what their peer institutions are doing, and then move on to their own considerations. No one has perfect wisdom or insight into these issues,” Bravman says.

He adds that the culture of a university often determines the resources it is willing to delegate to a curricular review.

“Culture and mores and norms of any one institution are going to set bounds around what it can likely accomplish in a reasonable time frame and with reasonable costs,” Bravman continues.

Dobin agrees that each institution must consider potential curricular reforms through the lens of its own traditions.

“There’s no question that history and culture set the framework in terms of what is or is not possible,” Dobin says.

Princeton, Chicago and Stanford, which have all undergone small-scale curricular reviews in recent years, say they prefer more frequent, focused reforms to sweeping changes.

According to Dobin, eight years ago, Princeton revised its system of distribution requirements and allocated funds for the development of courses to add new categories into the distribution requirements.

Administrators say one reason they prefer a directed review is that it enables them to respond to developments in individual fields more easily.

“Many schools find it very difficult to talk about a curriculum as a whole. I think most curriculum reform nowadays is done on a small group level or a department level,” Boyer says.

Yale’s most recent curricular review, however, took on an even more expansive mission. It aimed to address all aspects of the undergraduate academic experience, including both problems unique to Yale and present at schools nationwide.

“The key for us in the Yale report was not to compare ourselves to other schools, and what they offer or don’t, but to ask ourselves where our strong and weak links were, trying to enhance the strong and work on the weak links, and to grow with an eye to what Yale in particular had to offer students,” Associate Dean of Yale College Penelope Laurans writes in an e-mail.

“We asked again and again: given the new millennium, and the altered vision we bring to this review from last time, what can Yale do to enhance its strengths and fix its weaknesses in order to meet the new imperatives and address the old issues,” she continues.

At the University of Chicago, the Core curriculum—put in place before Harvard’s—was an outgrowth of the university’s unique traditions, says Boyer.

“I don’t know that many other schools would want to do what Chicago and Columbia have done,” in terms of core curricula, he says.

Chicago’s Core requires students to take specific sequences of courses in different subjects. The school asks Core professors to teach outside of their areas of expertise, Boyer says, to encourage interdisciplinary education.

At Columbia, students also must take courses in a series of areas, including contemporary civilization and physical education. Many of these courses are taught in small seminars with less than 20 students, according to the college’s website.

Awareness of how willing faculty members at an institution will be to implement curricular reforms is another important consideration for any curricular review, administrators say.

“In every university, you have to be confident of the faculty culture, of how tolerant the faculty is for new innovations,” Boyer says.

Sometimes, incentives for faculty members—such as bonuses and a lighter courseload—can increase their willingness to change established practices. But administrators say these incentives will not ensure the long-term success of a curriculum.

“One must be very careful not to incentivize that which should be a normal part of life at a university,” Bravman says.

Boyer affirms that the full support of members of an institution is required for a curricular review to be put in place.

“A curriculum has to be a medium- to long-term commitment,” Boyer says. “You can’t change the curriculum every year, so there has be some kind of steadiness.”


Though Harvard’s current review requires a great deal of commitment and resources, administrators nationwide and Harvard professors say they are not expecting much innovation.

Indeed, some of the proposals that will go before the Faculty this May, such as moving away from the Core and pushing concentration choice to a later time, seem to align Harvard with its peers, not set it apart.

Steven J. Gortler, Goldman Professor of Computer Science and director of undergraduate studies in computer science, says he does not believe the changes implemented by the curricular reform will be a drastic departure from Harvard’s current system of undergraduate education.

“I don’t think it’s going to be radically different from what we have now. There will be some changes, but I don’t think it will be earth-shattering,” he says.

Professor of Biological Anthropology Daniel E. Lieberman holds similar expectations about the review.

“My sense is that this review is more of an effort to tinker or modernize rather than to revolutionize,” Lieberman writes in an e-mail.

Because these changes are not expected to be groundbreaking, administrators at other schools say they do not plan to follow in Harvard’s footsteps.

Dobin says he recently attended a conference of Ivy League, Stanford, Chicago and MIT academic deans where he listened to a presentation about Harvard’s curricular review.

“[Whether it has an impact] depends entirely on how innovative or radical the change is. I would be surprised if anything very radical were to come out of it,” Dobin says.

Boyer agrees that he does not expect Harvard’s review to have much of an impact on the world of higher education.

In fact, many of the topics under consideration in Harvard’s current curricular review have already been addressed recently by review committees at other schools.

Yale and Princeton recently restructured their distribution requirements. Princeton, whose system now includes a focus on “ways of knowing,” has considered interdisciplinary studies and has discussed options for facilitating first-years’ transition into college life, Dobin says.

At Stanford, the seminar program for first-years and sophomores has also been a recent topic for review, Bravman says.


Harvard administrators say that creating a curriculum which serves as a model for other schools is not a priority.

“The curricular review is a statement we are first making about our own institution,” says Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71.

“What [its influence] on American education will be remains to be seen,” Gross says. “Trying to design a curriculum for Harvard College is easier than trying to design one for all the colleges in the country.”

But Kirby says he does expect other schools to follow Harvard’s lead.

“On the one hand, our mission is not to reform the world, but to figure out the best way to educate our students,” Kirby says.

“Yet at the same time we know full well that we have a responsibility that goes beyond the Yard. Harvard, as a leading American institution, has an enormous responsibility to educate its students to be citizens of the world,” he says.

Vendler suggests that, regardless of the curricular review’s impact on higher education as a whole, it is the students who will determine the success of Harvard’s new program.

“Many versions of general education have been prominent: Harvard’s General Education was in its time; the Core curriculum also; Columbia’s two-year mandatory program in the Western tradition; the University of Chicago’s Great Books curriculum in its time. All you can say is that these schools produced both well-trained and ill-trained students,” says Vendler.

“The success seems to depend more upon the individual student. Any one program seems to have produced desirable students and less desirable ones,” she says.

Laurans writes in an e-mail that, regardless of Harvard’s particular curriculum, the school offers its students a tremendous array of opportunities.

“I have always thought that those who make the most of Harvard are those who have the capacity for the best kind of independence,” Laurans writes. “The amazing thing about a great university...is the more you get to know it the bigger it gets. There are worlds within worlds. Those who reach out to them learn and grow the most. This has nothing to do with curriculum.”

—Staff writer Sara E. Polsky can be reached at polsky@fas.harvard.edu.