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The Curricular Misnomer

A lackluster administrative reform does not a curricular review make

By J. hale Russell

Like a band of traveling salesmen hawking their wares, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 and Associate Dean of the College Jeffrey Wolcowitz have gone House to House to discuss their ongoing review of the College curriculum. But there’s something slightly off about their sales pitch. For one, they won’t quite let students see inside those briefcases of merchandise that they keep describing in such alluring terms. There’s a good reason for this: the earth-shattering review we’ve been told about is not, in fact, happening. And nobody seems to be buying, judging from the lackluster participation of those professors and students who don’t happen to be one of the 60-odd members of the review committees.

From the start, administrators have repeatedly likened this review to the curricular overhauls conducted in the 1940s under then-University President James Bryant Conant ’14 and in 1978 under former Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky. But these comparisons are disingenuous at best. Conant’s revolutionary review essentially invented the idea of general education, the basis for core curricula nationwide; its 1945 report, the Redbook, sold 40,000 copies in a few years. Rosovsky’s review reinvigorated the faculty—still reeling from the culture shocks of the 1960s—by designing the core we know today, creating the idea of “approaches to knowledge.” Both of them garnered frequent press coverage and influenced undergraduate pedagogy nationwide. Though the core may have seen better days and undergraduate frustration with the current system is justified, these were welcome and trailblazing innovations at the time that excited faculty and students alike.

By contrast, there’s very little original thinking in this year’s much-hyped review. If we’re lucky, we’ll come out of this “overhaul” with a revised calendar structure, touched-up core requirements and improvements to advising. A few dramatic suggestions have been floated, but none really speaks to the core issues of education, and none is original—for instance a January term and the possibility of dropping grades for first-years (both already at MIT). Of course, those suggestions aren’t terribly advisable, either—both seem to promote lackluster academics in return for questionable (read: nonexistent) “mental health” benefits. Moreover, the decision to move to 4-1-4 structure by the University-wide calendar committee predated any intelligent discussion or decision-making at the College level about the merits of a J-term. Just as Harvard “catches up,” those other schools where we got the ideas are getting off the bandwagon (MIT now has grades second semester; Middlebury faculty have largely rallied to eliminate the January term).

That’s “if we’re lucky.” If we’re unlucky, the curricular review will be overtaken by University President Lawrence H. Summers’ perennial refrain for science education—specifically, as he put it in his inaugural, that undergraduates should be able to “know a gene from a chromosome or the meaning of exponential growth.” What’s missing in this hollow rhetoric about the sciences is any real discussion of what science education consists of and how to teach it. Given the plenitude of undergraduate complaints about science cores, one must seriously question how feasible it is to grant every student, including the most science-phobic, Shakespeare-toting humanities junkie, the serious knowledge about science Summers calls for. In speeches, Summers has justified the need for scientific understanding on the basis of the needs of a globalized society, another perennial (if somewhat meaningless) refrain in this curricular review. What’s all too obvious, unfortunately, is that this pro-sciences argument follows economic and political lines rather than the intellectual, moral and idealistic principles of liberal arts espoused in the Conant review, which sought to make Harvard students into educated members of a free society.

The very structure of the curricular review process invites this reluctance to engage on serious levels with the intellectual ideas and concepts that face academia. A closed, unwelcoming, thoroughly unexciting process is not very likely to produce an exciting, revolutionary idea. Note that nothing has been accomplished beyond a short “interim report” memo from Gross and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, which merely outlined in superficial terms some of the questions that face the curricular review—including the obvious and uninspired (“communities of learning,” “student research”) and the vague (“internationalization”)—and the task forces that had been established—again, ranging from the minor (“timing of the concentration choice”) to the mindless (“wireless technology”).

A report penned by Wolcowitz based on the committees’ work is due in May, but don’t expect anything earth-shattering. The committees are set up with broad tasks that seem more suited to re-evaluating the administrative processes of pedagogy, not the fundamental questions of education. While Rosovsky’s committees centered around intellectual inquiries—“Historical Study,” “Literature and Arts” and the other core areas we all know and love—this review is ill-defined and is suited to revising calendars, not ways of learning.

Several faculty members who were present for the 1970s review told me they remember feeling excitement in the air as questions of education were debated. This time around, nobody knows what’s going on—much less feels excitement. Unless the process takes a drastic change, we risk two dangers as students and professors sleep through the review: at the worst, permitting grave mistakes (centering the justification of learning on economic concerns), and at best, missing a golden opportunity. Last commencement, Summers called this “the most comprehensive examination of undergraduate education in a generation.” He’s right, and that’s what’s sad—that this process will one day be remembered as when Harvard College squandered its once-in-a-lifetime chance to examine what it means to be educated.

J. Hale Russell ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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