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After almost two years of discussion and deliberation, a report released yesterday proposed 57 major and minor recommendations to reshape the Harvard College experience.
Surveying the entire curriculum, the 69-page document issued recommendations from abolishing the Core Curriculum in favor of a distribution requirement to a mandated international experience.
The report also suggested that increased scientific literacy should be an integral part of a revamped undergraduate curriculum that will have fewer concentration requirements.
“As the report seeks to redefine general education, or knowledge in breadth, it challenges too our approach to concentrations, or knowledge in depth,” wrote Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby in an introductory letter to the report.
Formal discussion of the recommendations will begin in a Faculty meeting May 4 and continue through next year, likely culminating in a vote a year from now.
Several recommendations concerned first-years, including a requirement that every first-year take between two and four courses that are not letter graded and a suggestion that upperclass housing assignments be made before entering the College.
The report also proposed the establishment of an advising center, the movement of fall exams before winter break and the creation of a January term.
Other key proposals include the reduction of section size and required pedagogical training for new section leaders.
Faculty members said that they were generally pleased by the report’s recommendations, but that the language of the report left them unsure about what the specific changes would mean for the College.
“A lot of the things that are recommended are quite laudable, but they don’t amount to an awful lot. It still remains vague as to what will actually happen,” said Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn.
Professors have also pointed out that the proposed general distribution requirement, sophomore-year concentration choice deadline and the assignment of first-years to Houses before they arrive on campus all bring Harvard more in line with its peer institution in New Haven.
“Maybe you guys should think about changing your name to the Bulldogs, or change the [school] colors,” joked Professor of History Mark A. Kishlansky.
‘KNOWLEDGE IN BREADTH’
Heading the list of recommendations was a replacement of the Core with a more flexible distributional requirement as well as an increased focus on international experience and the sciences in the curriculum.
Students would fulfill the proposed distribution requirement by taking either Harvard College Courses or a set of departmental offerings in five broad areas. The offerings from the Harvard College Courses would be survey classes with an interdisciplinary approach.
“I like the idea of replacing the Core. [The Core] is a bad idea, an insufficient idea to begin with,” said Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53.
Mansfield said that the foundational knowledge courses proposed to replace the Core’s current “Modes of Thoughts” will be grounded in pertinent issues, not in professors’ specific fields. “[This] will be more what students need rather than what professors in their specialties want to teach,” he said.
Baird Professor of Science Gary J. Feldman agreed that the basic proposal is a good idea, but said that the five areas of study should be refined.
The report’s proposed five areas are based upon the current structure of divisional deans, recommending that students complete two courses in “the humanities, the social sciences, the life sciences, and the physical sciences with two additional courses in a category defined to emphasize international perspectives.”
“I think that more work needs to be done in thinking about the areas that we want to require general education courses in....Just using the divisional deans as an example is a fairly mindless way to go about things,” Feldman said.
Kishlansky was not as enthusiastic about the replacement of the Core.
“I believe that the Core is a very good way to introduce a broad sweep of liberal education and though I think it has its problems, I think that over the long run, people are going to be saddened to see the losses involved in losing the Core,” he said.
The report also recommended that even those who place out of the language requirement under the current system should take at least one semester of a foreign language, and added that students should no longer be required to complete their foreign language requirement during their first year.
‘KNOWLEDGE IN DEPTH’
The report recommended changes to concentrations that could potentially alter the undergraduate academic experience.
These recommendations include moving concentration choice to the end of the first term of sophomore year and the elimination of honors tracks within concentrations. According to the report, the number of required courses in a concentration should also be reduced to 12, with exceptions granted upon petition.
“The one change for undergraduate life which is quite clear is pushing back the choice of concentration,” Mendelsohn said. “I would say that the extra term is a good one. Freshmen are not quite ready to make that choice by the middle of their second semester.”
Kishlansky also said he supported delaying concentration choice, but worried that it might cause problems for students who want to change their concentrations.
“I think that there’s a lot of merit in it, although it will have an impact on a number of tutorial programs. There will be some growing pains there,” he said.
The proposed changes to the structure of concentrations, as suggested by the report, will also require new methods of pre-concentration advising and of advising within concentrations.
The report urged that first-years be assigned academic advisers in their areas of interest, so that proctors would no longer be required to provide official academic advice.
Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 said he does not believe that switching first-year advising will be easy, or that it was even a clear priority in the report.
“At this point, given the priority that the report has given to advising vis-a-vis things like the Core, I’m not particularly confident that pre-concentration advising is going to be vastly improved,” Mahan said.
In response to the increasing importance of science in the world, the report also urged that all students be exposed to a more rigorous science curriculum.
“Our undergraduates are living in a world of onrushing scientific and technological revolution,” Kirby wrote in his introductory letter. “[We] need to assure all of our students of an education in—not just an introduction to—the physical, applied, and life sciences.”
Support for this emphasis on the sciences is not unanimous among the Faculty.
“I don’t really care too much for the emphasis on knowledge, which seems to emphasize too much on sciences,” Mansfield said. “The emphasis should be more on permanent questions—a little more philosophy and less science.”
The report proposed a committee to examine the structure of introductory science courses and the pre-medical curriculum.
The report also focuses on enhancing undergraduates’ experiences overseas. In addition to the proposed distribution requirement, the report said that the College ought to work to increase funding to allow every student to pursue an international experience.
Faculty members interviewed yesterday were generally supportive of efforts to encourage study abroad.
“I hope that every undergraduate would have the opportunity to study abroad, even if it’s a fleeting experience,” Mendelsohn said, adding that “it makes us better hosts when people come here.”
“I certainly don’t object to foreign travel,” Mansfield added.
While most proposals stand to affect all undergraduates, the review made several recommendations that pertain specifically to first-years.
One recommendation would shift Harvard to a Yale-style housing system in which first-years are assigned to their Houses before entering the College and live in entryways affiliated with their upperclass dorms.
The report cited the improvement of first-year advising by bringing the new undergraduates into more contact with upperclass students as one goal of this proposal.
Mahan said that though there are benefits to the move, more research is necessary.
He noted decreased “student choice” through the elimination of blocking groups as one concern with the plan.
Other recommendations concerning first-years would see the expansion of the Freshman Seminar Program to accommodate the entire freshman class by the 2006-2007 academic year, as well as the requirement that all first-years enroll in a “small-group, faculty-led seminar, such as a Freshman Seminar or its equivalent.”
Initial responses to the curricular review report from students and Faculty spanned the gamut.
Mahan said he was disappointed that advising and teaching were not given more priority in the report.
“Most students would agree that the quality of teaching at Harvard is as problematic as the current arrangement of the Core,” he said.
“It’s frustrating for me not to see administrators go to bat for us when it comes to improving teaching,” he said.
Mahan added that overall he thought the report should have been more innovative.
Several Faculty also have noted that the proposal breaks little ground, noticing that elements of the proposed curriculum such as the distribution requirement and concentration delay resembling curricula at other schools—especially that of Yale.
Mansfield said he did not find this similarity problematic.
“We shouldn’t fear to imitate it because Yale does it,” he said.
Kishlansky said that while he had “endless confidence in Dean Kirby,” he considered the standardization of the Harvard curriculum problematic.
“I do think that [Harvard has] always offered a distinctive education, and the more homogenized education becomes, the less students have to choose from,” he said.
—Staff writer William C. Marra can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Sara E. Polsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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