A Godsent Change

Imagine studying a specialized theological field for three or more years, honing in on the current debates and scholarship in a department and rarely sampling courses outside it. Then imagine taking senior exams that require integrating numerous fields in theology. For many years, many Divinity School students have had to do just that.

To being more coherence to Harvard's theological education--and clear up problems like the senior exams--the Div School has been toying for years with ideas for curricular reform. With degree programs and seven departments, the Div School has not been able to focus its curriculum on what George E. Rupp, dean of the school, calls its "common center" of Christian experience. In fact, only in the unpopular senior exams were students ever asked to draw on broadly-based scholarship and integrate the fields of theological learning.

Rupp proposed realigning the school's curriculum in September, in his first major proposal as dean of the school. "I thought the benefit of this early momentum would out-weigh the cost of having an initial proposal that had not emerged from the deliberations of faculty committees," Rupp says. Nonetheless, the faculty added another entire dimension to his proposal during its annual January retreat.

While Rupp's proposal would group the seven departments into three divisions--with the working titles of Scripture; Christianity in Relation to Culture, Society and Personality; and Religions of the World, with required distribution courses in each--the faculty's proposal would add the methodology for studying in each of these fields. Rupp and the faculty combined their ideas and sent their new model to an eight-man Div School steering committee. First results will be back in October.

Today, the entire faculty appears enthusiastic about the idea of reform, but members disagree on just what they should be, Jane I. Smith, chairman of the steering committee and associate dean for academic affairs, says, adding, 'A few faculty members don't want any requirements, some want flexible ones, other want them quite rigid."

"The only reasonable parallel to the Core curriculum is to say we are moving in the direction from free and open choices to having some distribution requirements," Smith explains. She adds that the school had been gradually tightening its requirements--two years ago it adopted distribution guidelines.

The steering committee is also working to integrate Black and women's studies into two of the introductory courses in its division on Christianity and Culture, which comprises the Applied Theology, Theology, Ethics and Church History deparments, according to Smith. The curriculum changes will also allow more room for comparisons with different religous traditions.

From all reports, the Div School is serious about reform. Opening the steering committee to two student representatives, the school has also held several open hearings on the curriculum reforms to solicit student opinion. Most student involvement, and most of the changes, are centered around the school's largest degree program, the M.Div., which prepares students for the ministry, Joanne Thomson, an M.Div. student and former member of the steering committee, says.

As a result, the committee is emphasizing courses that integrate preaching into the rest of the material as part of their methodology, rather than developing separate courses on pastoring and preaching. "The Div School has the reputation of turning out learned ministers," Thomson says, adding, "There is little focus on practice."

The committee may integrate the current field work requirement of two units into the curriculum, she adds. Each unit consists of about 15 hours a week during the school year or 40 hours a week during the summer working in churches, social action, education, or hospital chaplaincies. In a school in which about one-third of the graduates become pastors, "it's a very important concern to learn how to be ministers in a religously pluralistic world," she adds.

Reform, however, may not be as swift and easy as many at the Div School hope. A growing deficit could impede the development of the new curriculum, Rupp says, explaining that only if prospective donors feel the school is reducing curricular diffusion will they commit funds. Moreover, because the faculty is 90 per cent tenured, professors with new specialities may be hard to come by.

The new curriculum will not change the liberal philosophical stance the Div School is known for, but it should bring more focus to eclectic programs that often ignore areas of theological study--a welcome change for both students and faculty. However long it takes to achieve the balance, the new curriculum will probably give students preparing for their senior exams some notes to study from.