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Give Curriculum More Rigor


By Jay M. Harris

At this time of year, as many high school seniors are making decisions regarding college, I find myself asked frequently whether Harvard is the best place to get an undergraduate education. Clearly, it is routinely ranked as the best institution of higher education in the country. Of this there is no question. But does it actually provide the best education?

When friends ask me such a question, I am forced to respond that it very much depends on the nature of the student. For those students who are selfmotivators, who are interested in taking advantage of all that the institution has to offer, who wish to go beyond the minimum that is demanded of them, Harvard is unsurpassed as an undergraduate institution. For others, however, Harvard can be a rather undemanding place and indeed, structures its undergraduate curriculum in such a way as to actually impede intellectual development.

A student can complete a degree at Harvard by taking 32 courses (half-courses, as they are officially designated), or four a semester. This is fewer than is demanded at many other institutions that require, say, 120 to 124 credits to graduate, with most courses counting for three credits. Further, an overwhelming majority of Harvard students pursue degrees with honors, meaning in most cases that their concentrations demand 15 or 16 courses. Thus fully half their undergraduate program is concentrated in one area. To this we must add the seven to eight Core classes that most students must take, two semesters of language and an expository writing class. We find, then, that many students need take but five electives in the course of eight semesters in order to graduate.

Such a structure results in a terrible waste of faculty resources. Faculty in departments with small numbers of concentrators end up teaching classes that are woefully undersubscribed. To be sure, sometimes this is due to the nature of the material or the reputation of the professor. But I have heard of students who say to a faculty member, "I want to take your course, but I can't because it does not fulfill a Core or concentration requirement." While such a calculation may be rational (if shortsighted), it results in an unfortunate imbalance in enrollments and limits students' exposure to important things going on in Harvard's classrooms.

But the negative impact of this structure on the actual education of undergraduates goes further than simply directing them away from courses in which they have an interest. It actually impedes intellectual growth. The small number of electives a students must take represents a failure on the part of the Faculty to push students to expand their horizons. But far more pernicious is that fact that the current structure demands that undergraduates declare a concentration at the end of their first year, i.e., after they have completed only four courses and are in the middle of four others. Some of these are almost always Cores, expository writing, or language courses, further limiting the exposure of students to new possible areas of interest before forcing them to declare a concentration. (I do not deny that for some students, Cores, Expos and language courses do indeed open new doors; I simply suggest that this is not so for most, as far as I can tell.)

I do not know this for sure, but I would be willing to bet that a much higher percentage of Harvard students end up concentrating in the areas they tentatively identified on their college applications (written when they were high school seniors) than do students at other institutions, who do not declare concentrations until the end of their sophomore year. Students simply do not have enough time to sample the many offerings at Harvard's "smorgasbord" before they are forced to determine which of them will serve as their main course. They often come out with the same range of interests with which they entered. I scarcely see how anyone can consider that a success. I am not saying that this is true of all Harvard students, or even most; many, no doubt, overcome the limitations of the system they confront. But why shouldn't all students be pushed by the faculty to explore the catalogue as widely as is possible?

What then is to be done? First, let us raise the number of courses needed to graduate to 36. Second, let us limit the number of courses any concentration can demand to 12. Finally, let us move concentration selection to the end of the sophomore year, after students would have completed 13 courses and be in the middle of 4 or 5 others. In this way, assuming the Core stays more or less as it is, students would have 12 courses in the area of concentration, eight Cores, two language, one Expos and thirteen electives.

All these changes would bring the Harvard undergraduate curriculum in line with those of many other worthy institutions and allow students to sample a number of different possible areas of concentration before declaring one. It would in all probability increase the number of students pursuing "minors" and would encourage others to take courses simply because they appear interesting or simply to study with one of our many "superstars." It might push students to take a course or two in areas that area foreign to them, moving beyond the one Foreign Cultures course required for the Core. And whatever else such changes might accomplish, they would certainly provide students with more opportunities to locate their intellectual interests and strengths and produce more broadly-educated graduates than we do now.

In discussing such a restructuring with undergraduates over the years, I have heard many who say they would welcome such changes. Some, however, add that the extra course requirements would take away from the time devoted to extracurricular activities.

I have the highest respect for the extracurriculars here at Harvard and acknowledge that participation by students in them is an essential part of their educations. Yet to resist curricular reforms because of the impact on extracurriculars is to have the tail wag the dog. Harvard's world-class reputation is not built on its extracurricular activities, however wonderful some of them may be. Nor, I suspect, do most students come here because of them. In considering curricular reform we must leave students time for a life, but we must also demand that they be students first and athletes, musicians, debaters, public servers, journalists or whatever, second. The Faculty must act to provide all Harvard students with a more demanding set of curricular requirements so that all students who come here get the maximum benefits of what Harvard has to offer.

Jay M. Harris is Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies.

Does Harvard provide the best education in the country? It depends.

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