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Nobody Likes a Bad Review

If only the report on the curriculum had accomplished anything

By J. hale Russell

With Monday's release of the report on the Harvard College curricular review, administrators seem to have outdone what they often do best, penning 60 pages of stunningly bland and half-baked recommendations that straddle the line between unspecific and impossible. Perhaps the most stunning suggestion to come out of the document is—gasp—that Harvard should make its curriculum better. What exactly that means and how that might be done is, evidently, left as an exercise to the reader.

Such a disappointing result is the rather unsurprising product of a one-year process conducted behind closed doors and largely driven by the narrow-minded agenda of a University President who, to judge by his repetitive gene-chromosome rhetoric, seems intent on turning Harvard into his alma mater, MIT. (Oddly enough, the sciences may well lose the most under the proposed revisions: a delayed concentration decision, “mandatory” study abroad and decreased field-of-study requirements will do no favors for undergraduate science concentrators.) Lawrence H. Summers—whose comments on undergraduate education at last year’s Commencement seem to form the linchpin (if not the entirety) of the report—left the authors in no doubt about his priorities, even holding dinners at his house to speak to each subcommittee of the review.

The report’s vapid section on “Harvard College Courses” (it’s telling that they couldn’t even come up with a name), the proposed pseudo-replacement for the Core, reads like a bad handbook for elementary school teachers: “A Harvard College Course on world histories might be built around ‘cultures and contacts,’ introducing students to significant moments, from multiple centuries and continents, in which civilizations interacted in cooperative or competitive ways; it might introduce students to episodes of international trade, war, conquest, and international organization.” The administrator responsible for this elegant sentence might want to consider whether the current Core indeed suffers from the problem of not being vague enough.

It is interesting to note how the curricular review might affect concentrators in Economics—home to the most undergraduates and, incidentally, Summers’ own department. The review’s proposals of a centralized advising center will find few friends in Economics, which already has such a system—one where students can get a quick answer to a question from an advisor who knows nothing about you (and doesn’t much care). The department is too large to seriously implement the report’s suggestions of increased freshman seminars and freshman advising. The average Economics concentrator will also learn less about other fields from the dumbed-down Harvard College Courses. And while their knowledge of scientific concepts will suffer from overly-broad, ill-defined courses, science concentrators’ understanding of scientific concepts will also shrink, from the decision to cap the number of concentration requirements at 12. The report, in other words, seems to have the unusual side-effect of ensuring that every undergraduate will be less educated (though at least evenly so).

Meanwhile, the report is severely lacking in areas that could have put Harvard on the vanguard of thinking about education. For instance, the discussion of arts in the curriculum runs a mere page and culminates in only one suggestion: that the dean of the humanities look at the arts. The lifeless section seems to conclude that performance and artistic endeavors lack academic merit, a view which is falling out of favor at most colleges nationwide. Thankfully, administrators were smart enough to cut one seemingly disparaging and nonsensical sentence that found its way into the confidential draft version of the report sent to all review participants last Thursday: “Fragmentation and inconsistency across art forms as to their role in the curriculum...tends to suggest that work in the arts lacks the gravitas of other academic endeavors.” (One wonders why the administrators who removed gems like that didn’t just cut the entire report during their weekend edits.)

Reading the report, one cannot help but feel that it was written not for its Harvard constituents but rather for observers outside campus. Very little about the vague text bears the mark of something originating in Cambridge. (Curiously enough, most of its dramatic suggestions were suggested in a report released exactly a year ago by a certain New Haven-based competitor. But in contrast, Yale’s report contains site-specific suggestions about how to implement each recommendation and was accompanied by details about how the feedback and comment period would progress.) But yesterday’s nauseating, fawning staff editorial in the Boston Globe—written in language scarily similar to that of the press release released by Harvard—would seem to confirm that the media has eaten up their sales pitch.

By contrast, faculty and students don’t seem to care; most faculty I’ve talked to have either not yet bothered to read the report or are deeply disappointed in its contents. Unlike the two prior reviews in the 1940s and 1970s, this one hasn’t successfully excited—or even involved—much of anyone. Half the goal of a curricular review is to reinspire faculty to a school’s teaching mission; the other half is to fix the curriculum. This week, College administrators failed to accomplish either.

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

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