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University President Lawrence H. Summers laid out his vision for a new undergraduate curriculum in the greatest detail to date in a Commencement afternoon speech that spanned more than half an hour.
Summers outlined the general problems an ongoing curricular review must remedy, pointing in particular to the perennial issue of advising, engagement in the curriculum and the inadequacy of science education for non-science concentrators.
And though Summers acknowledged that Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby and Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 bear responsibility for conducting the review, he offered specific priorities of his own, ranging from a call to provide students with “familiarity with the landscape of the major fields of knowledge” to the need for a greater emphasis on oratorical skills.
In remarks delivered before former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo’s keynote address, Summers told the approximately 5,000 in attendance that the current curricular review will be similar to Harvard’s previous attempts to define the Harvard education—having far-reaching implications “not just for the University, but for higher education and for our country and our world.”
Though Summers has used such lofty rhetoric in the past, the specifics of his speech represent the first time he has committed to changes more groundbreaking than adjustments to the current Core Curriculum or academic calendar.
In his speech, Summers said Harvard begins “from a position of great strength,” but noted that much had changed since the last time the curriculum had undergone a systematic review, 25 years ago.
He said he was moved and troubled by a report of the lack of direct engagement between senior Faculty and undergraduate students, citing the case of one science concentrator who, sharing his thoughts regarding curricular review, said that not one senior professor knew him by name.
He spoke of “a yearning that I heard from many students in my visits into the Houses—a yearning that I did not expect—for greater guidance from our remarkable faculty with respect to what it was that is most important for them to know in broad areas of knowledge.”
This comment not only highlighted the great dissatisfaction among students with the advising system—a problem that Gross and others have said will receive very close attention in the curricular review—but also signaled a potential shift in curricular emphasis toward bodies of knowledge that students would have to be able to command. An attention to teaching “ways of thinking,” rather than discrete knowledge, has served as the bedrock of the Core since its adoption.
Summers said that when he told a Harvard art historian about his wish for a survey course “as an introduction for students who would probably never take another art history course in their lives,” she reacted “with a mixture of consternation and hilarity,” arguing that no “self-respecting” scholar could teach all of art history in one year.
“In this age of exploding and highly specialized knowledge, and justified skepticism about Olympian claims, it is not easy to figure out how we can legitimately address our students’ desire for familiarity with the landscape of the major fields of knowledge,” Summers said. “But I hope we will do our best to wrestle with this issue.”
There are certain fundamentals that students should not be able to leave Harvard without, Summers said, including the ability to write an expository essay, interpret “great humanistic texts” and “connect history to the present.”
In this vein, Summers encouraged a deeper understanding of the sciences, echoing a theme that has recurred throughout his presidency.
“All our students should understand at some basic level how unraveling the mysteries of the genome is transforming the nature of science,” he said, “and how empirical methods can sharpen our analysis of complex problems facing the world.”
In an analogy that won laughs from the audience, Summers likened educated people’s relationship to science to that with the engine of a car: “They appreciate its importance, they understand what it can do for them and they recognize the needs for experts to make or repair it. But they have fundamentally not a clue about what goes on under the hood.”
Given an increasing reliance on science and scientific analysis, Summers said students will need to have real understanding a “working knowledge” of scientific method.
Likewise, Summers said, part of Harvard students’ education should involve a greater honing of oratorical skills and communication through speech.
“It is not as clear to me that we do enough to make sure that our students graduate with the ability to speak and present ideas orally in a cogent and concise fashion to persuade others of their points of view, to reason to an important decision with moral and ethical implications, to structure a complex decision-problem,” he told the audience. “And yet to succeed in the worlds that most will enter, our students will be expected to know how to collaborate with others on substantive problems and how to negotiate with others to reach effective outcomes.”
Summers also touched on the role of extracurriculars at the College, and the lessons those examining the curriculum should take from it.
According to Summers’ speech, surveys show that students at the College are more satisfied with their extracurricular activities than their academics.
While some have suggested that Summers wants to refocus students’ attention on their academic lives, he said in his speech that he hopes the curricular review recognizes “the importance of extracurricular activities for student life and learning.”
Echoing suggestions urged by outgoing Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68—an advocate of extracurriculars whose ouster has been cited as evidence of Summers’ desire to diminish their role—Summers said that the curriculum should seek to “incorporate aspects of our students’ extracurricular experience that make them so meaningful” and to “find more ways to let students work in groups, to set their own direction and to be guided by mentors in their areas of interest.”
A final nucleus of the address was Summers’ expressed hopes that Harvard equip students to tackle what he called the “defining challenge of our time,” specifically “the relationship between developing countries and the developed world.”
Describing successful outcomes in this area as on par with the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, Summers said it is essential that Harvard students “understand and think about parts of the world remote from themselves…meet people from other countries here and abroad, study texts from other civilizations and grapple with cultures and social structures different from their own.”
Connected to this goal, Summers hinted that he hopes to increase the number of international students at the College—a potentially controversial move—saying that the University should seek out “ever more actively students from disadvantaged backgrounds and top students from all over this world.”
“There is no question that Harvard is a distinctively American institution, and it will remain so,” Summers said. “But in this century more than ever, it must be an American institution open to the world.”
Following Summers’ address to the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, Zedillo took the podium to speak in defense of international organizations, cautioning the U.S. on the dangers of unilateralism.
Zedillo, who is now a professor of international economics and politics at Yale, praised the progress enabled by “the international system of rules and institutions that was developed in the period around the end of the Second World War.”
“International institutions have fostered a greater convergence of values than ever in human history. For the first time in history, most of the world’s governments are democratic,” Zedillo said. “A principal reason for this universality of rights and values is the wide array of United Nations documents that define and prescribe them.”
The former president also analyzed the detriments of unilateralism by the United States and other nations, as well as the heightened opposition to multinational institutions during an era of fears of terrorism.
“At this hour of global interdependence, even the mightiest power has limits to its influence, to its capacity to control how others react to its actions,” he said. “Aggressive unipolarity sooner rather than later would set the world in search of a different equilibrium, one in which the military power of the United States could be balanced. This process would prove expensive and tragic.”
“I submit that it is time to stop bashing the multilateral institutions. They are no better or worse than what the major powers put into them, in leadership, skillful bilateral diplomacy and resources,” Zedillo continued. “The right way is not to undermine these institutions but, where needed, to reform them so that they can better serve the good causes of human rights, security, peace and prosperity.”
—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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