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Does High School Prepare for Harvard?

Undergraduate Education

By Eric S. Solowey

Dissatisfied with the high school preparation of some Harvard students, professors are being forced to reconsider the proper role of the Core Curriculum and the basic function of higher education.

While some faculty members say that university education should be devoted solely to the analysis of ideas, others insist that colleges must teach the basic facts that secondary schools are failing to convey to their students.

And 10 years after Harvard's Core Curriculum was touted as the new model for undergraduate education, Harvard's administrators are taking a step back--and considering whether the secondary school preparation its undergraduates have received is compatible with the Core's "modes of learning" approach.

Already, the Core Committee has commissioned studies of the academic background of Harvard undergraduates in science and history--the two areas that have received the most faculty complaints.

And while administrators say they will not make any policy changes until the studies are completed, the initial results have confirmed the fears of some faculty members.

According to one Core Committee study, 100 percent of the Class of '93 had taken high school math, but only 67 percent of students had studied European history and 56 percent had taken computer science in high school.

"History is a non-entity at high school," Professor of History Simon M. Schama said in an interview last month. "It is not surprising that students are unprepared, seeing that the textbooks are so appalling."

But Harvard is not well-suited to help students without a solid grounding in history and science, since the Core Curriculum is designed to teach undergraduates modes of analysis rather than basic facts and figures.

"The university should not be just about facts; the emphasis should be on analysis," said Professor of History and of Women's Studies Olwen Hufton. "It's not a function of a university to make up the deficiencies of the [secondary] school."

Professors on the other side of the debate reluctantly concede that the Core has to cover the basic facts in order to accommodate the needs of Harvard students.

"You cannot teach about a mode of thought without [students knowing] the content," said Professor of Government Jorge I. Dominguez, who chairs the foreign cultures subcommittee of the Core. "Though we do not like it, we may have to rethink Core courses."

The best solution to the problem, faculty and administrators say, is to attack it at its source by pressing secondary schools into raising their academic standards.

Educators have said that colleges can have a greater impact on high school education by telling high schools specifically what their graduates should know.

Jeffrey Wolcowitz, assistant dean for undergraduate education, said this week that Harvard "would want to give a clearer signal to [secondary] schools about what we think good preparation is and hope the schools will reform."

But it is questionable whether secondary schools, already facing shortages of teachers and funds, have the resources to answer the universities' calls for a reinvigorated curriculum. And, for now, Harvard and other prestigious colleges will continue to look for temporary solutions to a wide-ranging problem.

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