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Children's Social Worlds: a Captivating Core Course

Charting THE COURSE

By Andrew S. Chang

Puberty, reproductive strategies and Baby M aren't topics most Core courses are likely to cover.

But they are some of the diverse themes covered in Social Analysis 56: "Children and Their Social Worlds," a course created this year as part of the Harvard Project on Schooling and Children (HPSC).

The project, one of President Neil L. Rudenstine's five interfaculty initiatives, has had little impact on the College curriculum thus far. But the HPSC eventually hopes to create more courses--and eventually an undergraduate concentration--in children's studies.

"Children and Their Social Worlds" is the first new undergraduate course in children's studies. The course explores the issues facing today's children from the perspectives of history, psychology, anthropology and law.

The course aims to "take the basic knowledge about children that social scientists have gathered and apply that to social problems," says Starch Professor of Psychology Jerome Kagan, one of the course's three professors.

In this year of extremely limited offerings in the Core program, students have flocked en masse to "Children." According to head teaching fellow Aruna Sankaranarayanan, 269 students have enrolled in the course, far exceeding the teaching staff's initial expectation of 100 to 150 students.

"It's heartening to know that students are responding with the same enthusiasm that we [the teaching staff] respond to these issues," Kagan says.

And it's not difficult to find reasons for the popularity of "Children." Students applaud the course's interdisciplinary approach, relevance to their service work and the star-studded faculty, in addition to the interesting subject matter.

"It's something you actually want to learn, not something you have to learn," says Gregory S. Sawicki '97.

Interdisciplinary Approach

Like the Project on Schooling and Children itself, "Children" is based on an interdisciplinary approach.

Each of the course's three professors--Kagan, Larsen Professor of Education and Human Development Robert A. LeVine and Professor of Law Martha L. Minow--brings different expertise and a different angle to the course.

"We each do our own lecture...and go through each stage of child development with our own perspective," Minow says.

Students say that the approach works better than in other courses with multiple professors.

"[The professors] pull it off very well for the first year" of the course, says Alisa N. Kendrick '97. "It's obvious they communicate and gear their lectures to work together and incorporate things from [the other professors' lectures]."

Students add that the professors do not always agree with each other on policy issues.

"Sometimes the psychological side is almost diametrically opposed to the anthropological studies," Sawicki says.

And the different points of view leave a lot of room for debate among students in sections.

"It's interesting to hear radically different opinions," Kendrick says. "It reflects that we as a society don't necessarily agree about what's best for a child."

Minow says the debates often extend into the teaching staff's regular meetings with the teaching fellows.

"The weekly meetings are like an additional seminar for us, an intellectual feast," she says.

Kendrick, a psychology concentrator, says she finds the anthropological information particularly refreshing.

"It's kind of liberating to read about other cultures where women aren't the sole caretakers," she says. "It's important to see that in order to see our own biases."

Students also say that they particularly enjoyed Minow's lecture on the custody battle over "Baby M."

"The legal, public policy aspect is something many students don't get [in the undergraduate curriculum]," Minow says.

Students and Public Service

Another unique element of "Children" are the required field observation sessions. Students observe children in a variety of settings including day-care centers, museums, schools and after-school programs.

"[The students] have an experience of being social observes," Minow says. "They can recognize some of the difficulties in framing systematic studies of children."

Students who perform volunteer work with children can substitute their service experiences for the observation sessions.

Sawicki, who was the former Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) cabinet coordinator and director of ExperiMentors, a PBHA program, says he is glad to see the course support public service.

"This allows you to tie in service work into your academics," he says.

Minow says that volunteers enrich the course by relating their own ser- vice experiences in section.

"The volunteers bring very immediate impressions and questions about children," Minow says.

But she adds that she believes the course can also add perspective to the student's volunteer work.

"It gives them a different lens to the work they're already doing," she says.

Children's Studies?

What does the course say about the field of children's studies?

Kagan cautions that it's too early to begin talk of an undergraduate concentration.

"I think it's possible, but we have to wait and see," he says. "Is there a coherent body of knowledge? One course does not make a concentration."

Students have similarly mixed views about such a concentration."

"I don't see how anybody could spend half their coursework at Harvard taking course exclusively related to children," Sawicki says.

But teaching fellow Marie-Anne Suizzo says she believes Harvard should take the lead creating the new field of study.

"If Harvard wants to be a leader, it needs to step up and be a leader and demonstrate that it values education and children," Suizzo says

"The volunteers bring very immediate impressions and questions about children," Minow says.

But she adds that she believes the course can also add perspective to the student's volunteer work.

"It gives them a different lens to the work they're already doing," she says.

Children's Studies?

What does the course say about the field of children's studies?

Kagan cautions that it's too early to begin talk of an undergraduate concentration.

"I think it's possible, but we have to wait and see," he says. "Is there a coherent body of knowledge? One course does not make a concentration."

Students have similarly mixed views about such a concentration."

"I don't see how anybody could spend half their coursework at Harvard taking course exclusively related to children," Sawicki says.

But teaching fellow Marie-Anne Suizzo says she believes Harvard should take the lead creating the new field of study.

"If Harvard wants to be a leader, it needs to step up and be a leader and demonstrate that it values education and children," Suizzo says

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