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Curricular Review, Large and Small

By Benedict H. Gross and Jeffrey Wolcowitz

Under the leadership of Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is in the midst of its first major review of the Harvard College curriculum since the mid-1970s. The report issued this spring offers a set of proposals that we believe will strengthen undergraduate education at Harvard and prepare students well for their post-college lives. Next year, the community will debate and refine the proposals and prepare to implement changes in the undergraduate curriculum.

As we engage in this review, several questions come to mind. Is revision of the curriculum something that happens at Harvard only once every 30 years? Why is this the right time to undertake a major review? And, anticipating that our answer to the first question is no, to what degree does the recent report represent continuity or a discontinuous break with the past?

The curriculum in Harvard College is renewed and energized on a regular basis. Faculty revise and update their courses to reflect the reframing of debates and advances in knowledge and to improve pedagogy. Departments develop new courses to reflect emerging areas of student and faculty interest. Departments and concentrations regularly re-evaluate and revise their curricula, changing requirements, restructuring course sequences and introducing new options for students.

Several years ago, for example, the two biology departments created a new course in genetics and genomics to serve as the gateway to concentration, introducing students early to the basic language of the life sciences. The English department revised its junior tutorial program two years ago to strengthen its intellectual content and to bring small groups of undergraduates together with one graduate student for each group to explore a topic of mutual interest, with emphasis on research and writing. With greater faculty strength and more courses in film studies, the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies will offer a new concentration track in this area next year. And last year, the Department of Afro-American Studies reconfigured itself as African and African American Studies, inaugurating an African languages program this year and a new concentration track in African studies for next year.

The period since the 1997 review of the Core Program has been one of rapid change with respect to College-wide programs and degree requirements, as the Faculty has reviewed and modified particular aspects of the curriculum.

The Faculty voted in 1997 to introduce Quantitative Reasoning as a new Core area, expanding the Core Program from 10 to 11 areas and the number of exemptions from 2 to 3.

The Faculty also voted to allow department alternates to Core courses in the humanities and social science areas; these already existed in the science areas. The Core Standing Committee has focused on expanding the offerings in the Core proper, but 16 department courses in the humanities and social sciences now satisfy Core requirements.

Language citations were introduced in 1999 to recognize and encourage sustained work in a foreign language. Today, 354 are being awarded in 18 languages. Students may use a language citation toward the Core Foreign Cultures requirement.

The Faculty asked the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) to examine the overall number of requirements with an eye toward allowing more elective choices. The EPC focused on reducing the number of concentration requirements. One-third of the concentrations, including some of the largest, reduced requirements in at least one of their tracks.

During the 2000-2001 academic year, the Faculty began an expansion of the Freshman Seminar Program to increase the opportunities for first-year students to benefit from small-group instruction. The program has expanded from 36 seminars offered that year to 114 to be offered next year. To open curricular space for students to enroll in seminars, the Faculty reduced the Core requirement from 8 to 7 of the 11 areas.

Over the past two years, the Faculty has sought to make study abroad a more natural part of a Harvard College education, creating a new Office of International Programs and asking concentrations to facilitate a semester abroad. To lower one barrier to study abroad, the Core Standing Committee reduced the Core requirement by one area for each full term of study abroad. During the past year, 173 students studied abroad for one or both terms. This summer, 130 students will study abroad, including 35 enrolled in courses taught by Harvard faculty through the Summer School.

So, why a major review of the undergraduate curriculum at this point in time? As University President Lawrence H. Summers often reminds us, no institution, no matter how strong, should go for more than 25 or 30 years without critical self-examination. Harvard must adapt to the profound changes in society. Moreover, the interconnected worlds of scholarship and teaching have changed significantly in many fields, and we must think collectively about what and how we teach, and for what purpose. The rapid rate of curricular innovation and change over the past several years far outpaces what we had seen during the period from the introduction of the Core in the 1970s until the 1997 review. This too is a sign that the time had come to step back from business as usual and take a comprehensive look at the curriculum to make certain that the various components provide a unified vision of what we seek to achieve in the education of Harvard College students.

The recent report on the Harvard College Curricular Review reaffirms our commitment to a liberal education in the arts and sciences and outlines a curriculum in which students have greater freedom to shape their educations. While many of the recommendations represent new formats, opportunities and commitments, they bring together and recast many of the changes that were already being developed in the concentrations and in FAS at large: commitment to international education, growing emphasis on the sciences, opportunities for interdisciplinary work and more venues for students to work closely with faculty in small groups.

If the changes outlined in the report are adopted, how might a student entering Harvard College a few years from now make her way through the curriculum? In consultation with an academic adviser, she will choose a freshman seminar or another small course that provides the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member. Another course will be devoted to advancing her skills in written and oral communication. She will also take foundational courses co-taught by faculty from FAS and perhaps from across the University that introduce her to important concepts and approaches from several fields. Her other courses freshman year and during the first term of sophomore year will allow her to explore areas of interest that will help her choose a concentration mid-way through the sophomore year. The wider range of choices available for meeting general education requirements eliminates the distinctions among general education, concentration and elective courses.

Once she has chosen a concentration—say, government with a special interest in international environmental policy—she will continue to work with an adviser to plan her academic program. She will take a junior seminar that focuses on a topic in international relations. She will also explore her interests in this area (and her secondary interest in Latin American literature) while studying for a term in Chile—and meet her language requirement by taking courses taught in Spanish during that term abroad. A smaller number of concentration requirements and greater flexibility to take related courses, as well as a larger number of electives, will allow her to support her interest in environmental issues by taking courses on the economics of the environment and science courses on climate change and environmental engineering (counting toward her physical science general education requirement). A January term might be used to travel to Costa Rica with a Harvard course on biodiversity. As a senior, she might enroll in a seminar on global warming, collaborating on a group project with classmates who are completing their concentrations in economics, history and science, biology and environmental science and public policy. And throughout her four years in the College, she will use electives to take a range of courses that allow her to pursue already-established interests and to develop new interests.

As Harvard College reinvents itself from generation to generation, it also continues a great tradition of providing outstanding education for undergraduates, adapting itself to changes in the world and in student and faculty interests, recognizing the great talent among both students and faculty and periodically taking stock to re-evaluate in a large way how well we are doing and how we might do better.

Benedict H. Gross ’71 and Jeffrey Wolcowitz are dean of the College and associate dean of the College, respectively.

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