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A Hard Sell

Curricular Review lacks a guiding philosophy—other than money

By J. hale Russell

At first, the proposal for Harvard College Courses, the broad and ill-defined replacement for the Core put forth in last month’s report on the curricular review, seemed merely incompetent. But administrators were evidently motivated by another, less-than-savory rationale, buried deep within the report in a comma-delineated clause about the Harvard College Courses: “They should develop distinctive course materials for use in, and potentially beyond, Harvard College” (emphasis added). The great secret that explains these new classes, confirmed for me by several people connected to the review, is that administrators indeed hope to “use” these courses “beyond” the University—by selling them. This could involve either complete course materials, like syllabi and textbooks, that can be adopted elsewhere for a price, or as part of an extensive online distance-learning program.

The Harvard fashioned by these administrators might resemble less an institution of higher learning than The Teaching Company, whose ads for its “great books” taped lectures appear regularly in the New York Times book review. In faculty meeting earlier this month, Porter Professor of Medieval Latin Jan M. Ziolkowski perhaps put it best with a two-syllable “haiku” about the Harvard College Courses: “Ka-ching!” In a previous column, I mocked administrators for lacking the creativity to come up with a name more interesting than “Harvard College Courses” (which would seem to imply that all other courses within the College are not, indeed, Harvard College Courses—perhaps they are just Harvard College courses). Instead, I should have tipped my hat to them for finding a name that will serve as a brilliant marketing device for these courses, provided you live outside of Cambridge.

The plan to profit off these courses explains another mystery from the review: What professor would ever agree to teach a course whose syllabus resembles a badly designed 6th-grade social studies class (as with the report’s example “cultures and contacts” course which will miraculously scamper through “multiple centuries and continents” by covering “significant moments…in which civilizations interacted in cooperative or competitive ways”—in a semester)? The answer is not too hard to guess when that professor might receive a hefty bonus and/or ego-boost and global brandname as Harvard marketers hawk his course everywhere from eBay to East Podunk College.

The disingenuous Harvard College Courses proposal speaks to a deeper problem concerning the curricular review report’s philosophical backbone—specifically, its lack of one. The report, which contains notably few references to specific studies or even general principles that might back up its findings, has replaced the term “liberal arts education” with its own (unexplained) invention, “liberal education”—a phrase that seems palatable at first glance and utterly devoid of meaning at second, unless one were to mean it in a politicized sense. (Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, incidentally, might have done well to consult the handy guide distributed to all incoming first-years, Gordon Harvey’s Writing with Sources, before citing former University President Neil L. Rudenstine’s apparent definition of “liberal education” in his cover letter introducing the report. In addition to footnoting the wrong page number from Rudenstine’s book—a page which mysteriously contains neither of the two passages he quotes—Kirby failed to pick up on Rudenstine’s repeated use of the established and sensible term “liberal arts,” and “liberal education” only if immediately followed by “in the arts and sciences” and used in the context of a comparison with the Chinese education system.)

Inventions of phrases like “liberal education” suggest that the review was not conceived as a document of pedagogical and intellectual innovation, rendering it instead an amalgam of actively duplicitous recommendations (creating the Harvard College Courses in part to make money and fame) and passively unfocused rambles. While the report emphasizes the theme of “globalization,” it skirts issues of moral reasoning in education, relegating them to a single paragraph recommending that the Dean “examine” how to teach “ethical and moral questions.” Moreover, its expectation of study abroad in order to create global-minded citizens clashes with its decision to delay the College’s language requirement—meaning that students will likely take worse versions of their undergraduate requirements at institutions of lower caliber while never venturing outside of their English-speaking enclaves (all while dilapidating the Cambridge campus by destroying House community and extracurricular life by ensuring an unstable undergraduate population).

The report feels divided on what it wants out of students. Kirby’s letter says, in discussing the reduction of concentration requirements, that “a three year-concentration may be ideal as preparation for doctoral study,” but asks whether “such a course of study [should] be the central aim of a college of arts and sciences.” University President Lawrence H. Summers—a driving force behind the review, whose rhetoric is woven throughout the report—became notorious last year for harping on how students commit too much time to extracurriculars at the expense of intellectual rigor. Meanwhile, Kirby’s letter tells us that the only reason one would study in a single department for six-years is to pursue doctoral study (which is, strangely enough for an academic institution, characterized as a marginal pursuit). However, one need look no further than the testimonials on most departments’ websites to see that students enjoy a 14- or 16-course study in a humanities field for reasons beyond their dreams of becoming a Ph.D. The curricular review report, alas, seems to propose an education that is neither broad nor deep.

As students and faculty scatter for the summer months, the report’s timing could not be worse. It leaves little room for meaningful opposition, particularly given that Kirby and other administrators have given students and faculty few hints as to how (if at all) they plan to solicit feedback and what process the report must go through before it is implemented. If the secrecy of the process used to create the report is any indication, we may not even be told about the feedback process before the feedback period is finished. Ka-ching, indeed.

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

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