'Me Too' for a Great Books Option

Harvard should follow other colleges' tried and true thinking

The Harvard College Curricular Review has been often criticized, and rightfully so, for its overwhelmingly copycat, “me too” quality. Unabashedly following in the footsteps of curricular reforms at other universities, the curricular review has attempted to spin even the commonplace (study abroad) into a uniquely Harvard innovation (internationalization). Notably, U.S. News and World Report lists 42 schools where at least half its students study abroad, including nearby Wellesley. Even the most foundational change proposed by the review, a shift from the Core Curriculum to distribution requirements giving students “great freedom of choice,” is a long overdue synchronization with the academic programs of Yale, Princeton and Stanford. Imitation is flattery, and Harvard has been doing a lot of flattering. But as long as we are looking to other schools for ideas, why aren’t we adopting one of their best?

Both Yale and Stanford offer its first-year students optional “Great Books” programs—a unique curriculum that introduces students to texts the colleges deem most important or influential. Yale’s program, “Directed Studies,” attempts to introduce students to the “central texts of the Western tradition,” through a three yearlong courses in literature, philosophy, and historical and political thought. Stanford’s program, “Structured Liberal Education” (SLE), “asks students to confront central questions that have perplexed and confounded humankind throughout the ages” in an intensive three-quarter sequence. Both programs include works from great writers and thinkers such as Shakespeare and Descartes, while Stanford’s program has a more international bend, including texts such as the Koran, Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. The programs also put a premium on teaching quality by incorporating small weekly seminars with faculty. Harvard should work to develop a similar program.

A “Great Books” program could be constructed under the auspices of the Harvard College Courses, but should stand out even in that grouping as an intensive introduction to the humanities for first-year students, taking the place of relevant distribution requirements. Perhaps even Expos-style instruction could be incorporated into the program to replace the first-year writing requirement.

Much of the opposition to “Great Books” programs has been against proposals to make them compulsory, but the demand for a comprehensive survey of seminal texts has not waned; and this demand should be met. Currently, there is no way a Harvard first-year can attempt to replicate the type of academic experience—a guided tour of what matters and why—enjoyed by Yale students in “Directed Studies” and Stanford students in SLE. The Wall Street Journal recently commented in response to the curricular review report that “universities are in effect abdicating a role we once assumed defined their mission: providing direction.” A program like “Directed Studies” or SLE offers precisely this type of direction, and in expected “me too” fashion, Harvard can too.

—Michael B. Broukhim ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.