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Friday’s first Faculty-wide discussion of the Harvard College Curricular Review this year revealed fundamental disagreements among professors over the nature and purpose of the general education program recommended to succeed the Core Curriculum.
Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, the only professor to sit on both last year’s Working Group on General Education and this year’s Committee on General Education, began the discussion by saying that though his committee has not yet reached any decisions, “there is a shape” to the hypothetical system they will recommend to the Faculty.
Sandel, who moderated the discussion in the second-floor Faculty room in University Hall, said that their recommendations would be similar to those made last April by the 54 participants in the first stage of the review in which the working group recommended the replacement of the Core with a set of distributional requirements and foundational, interdisciplinary Harvard College Courses. Unlike today’s Core classes which emphasize “modes of thought,” the proposed Harvard College Courses are more focused on facts the Faculty thinks students should know.
The hypothetical curriculum Sandel presented to the more than 100 professors in attendance suggested making students take classes in the humanities and arts. the social sciences and the natural sciences, in addition to requirements in history, moral reasoning and quantitative reasoning.
But it became clear throughout the afternoon that professors are overwhelmingly undecided about what the general education system should look like. In an impromptu straw poll taken by Sandel towards the end of the over two-hour discussion, approximately 12 professors said they would favor a system of strict distributional requirements, while about twice that number voted in favor of a distributional system that would include Harvard College Courses.
The majority of the more than 100 professors in attendance did not vote and some questioned whether it was appropriate to vote at this time given that an official vote will not be taken until this spring, at the earliest.
“Any vote is premature,” said Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Rev. Peter J. Gomes.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Preliminary suggestions from faculty members for Harvard College Courses included courses on world history, the nature of color, the European novel from Cervantes to Kafka and a course that would study seven works of art.
But whether the Harvard College Courses should exist at all soon became a topic of discussion.
Professor of Comparative Literature Susan R. Suleiman was the first to question the necessity of Harvard College Courses.
“We should maybe think about a simple distribution requirement,” Suleiman said. “It’s not very sexy, but it might be good.”
Cabot Professor of Biology Richard M. Losick defended Harvard College Courses because they would bring student inquiry more in line with how the faculty is increasingly approaching research.
“The science that we practitioners engage in has become interdisciplinary, but the way we teach has not,” he said.
He said the proposed courses will provide an opportunity for interdisciplinary work not allowed by study purely within traditional departments.
But Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris said that the two arguments for Harvard College Courses—that study has become increasingly interdisciplinary and that the College must pull professors out of their disciplines—are contradictory.
Harris called criticisms of the “narrowness” of professional inquiry “increasingly anarchronistic.”
While professors will not vote formally on the curricular recommendations until early this spring, two Harvard College Courses are already in the planning stages—full-year introductory courses to the life sciences and physical sciences designed for concentrators and non-concentrators alike.
But Harris doubted that the Courses have the pedagogical value to make them central to general education.
“They sound like the books we want to write,” he said. “All too often we tend to think of students as people who will absorb our wisdom rather than as co-authors.”
Harris said the complex and interdisciplinary Courses might work better as “culminating experiences” for seniors rather than a requirement for first-years.
HOW TO BREAK IT DOWN
Professors also disagreed on how the distributional requirements should be shaped. Sandel said that the committee may recommend that students take classes in the humanities and arts, the social sciences and the natural sciences, along with separate requirements in history, moral reasoning and quantitative reasoning.
Porter University Professor Helen Vendler drew applause when she said that Sandel’s suggested areas omit important areas of study—particularly a “foreign cultures” requirement.
“I would send a Harvard graduate out into the world with more international understanding and less quantitative reasoning, if I had the choice,” Vendler said.
Baird Professor of Science Gary Feldman, who called today’s Core categories “not so bad,” took issue with the broad nature of the three principal areas of study defined by Sandel, arguing that they encompassed just about everything.
“We might as well have no requirements at all,” he said.
But other professors supported the distributional requirement because they would increase the Faculty’s ability to offer the kinds of courses they want to teach.
“As I see it, a division distribution helps return agency to the departments and I think that’s to the good,” said Irene J. Winter, Boardman professor of fine arts.
English Department Chair James Engell also praised distributional requirements on the grounds that they allow students greater flexibility and the chance to explore new areas of inquiry.
Underlying Friday’s debate were not only disagreements over requirements but also about the broader purpose of general education. And faculty members said that the last must come first.
“Unless we know what the purpose of general education is, then we won’t know what qualifies as general education,” said Feldman of the early tone of the discussion.
Professor of Psychology Philip Stone suggested the purpose of general education should be to prepare students for an unknown future—”the kind of world we can only begin to see” and that “opens their minds to alternatives...rather than the ubiquitous given.”
Meanwhile, Engell said general education should focus on unsolved academic questions. The best system is one that “gets students to address questions to which society has no pat answers,” he said.
After the meeting, Classics Department Chair Richard F. Thomas said that though he was pleased to have broad discussion begin, more debate among the entire Faculty—not just the Review committees—will be necessary to reach a consensus.
“There is the question of whether [the] function [of general education] has been sufficiently discussed,” Thomas said. “There’s been very little dialogue.”
He said he was pleased with Friday’s meeting, and said he hopes more will be organized to address the specific issue of general education.
There are already plans to hold two more discussions to address other Review recommendations—one in January to look at concentrations and advising and one in February to look at science education, the international experience and a proposed January Term.
There are also plans to hold a forum exclusively for students.
—Staff writer William C. Marra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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