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For Gen Ed Committee, Debate But Few Results

Committee’s internal documents show extensive effort, disagreements that are scarcely reflected in vague report

By Allison A. Frost and Evan H. Jacobs, Crimson Staff Writerss

Following the chilly reception of last year’s interim report for the Harvard College Curricular Review, many had high hopes that this year’s Committee on General Education would produce a bold and conclusive statement, laying to rest fears that the review had been derailed.

Instead, after some of Harvard’s top faculty and student minds produced hundreds of pages of ambitious proposals, the committee’s work resulted in a nine-page “Draft Final Report” that even committee members recognize is far from final.

This report, which was never widely distributed after facing strong censure from early readers, largely failed to provide a clear definition of the Harvard College Courses proposed in an earlier stage of the review and lacked strong justification for its recommendations.

In the face of faculty criticism, some committee members say that the report simply fails to convey the progress that has been made, but others are less confident that the committee has determined its vision for general education at Harvard.

“This working document we had called a final report...in a sense conveyed the impression that we had it together and ready to go, when we didn’t and we don’t,” says Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier ’60, a committee member.

Judging from the committee’s internal documents reviewed by The Crimson, it is clear that there was no want of ideas or debate. But the final product is evidence of an inability to synthesize a year’s work into one coherent statement.

With the clock ticking, and other curricular review committees finishing up their work, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby has now decided to forgo full committee meetings and draft a more substantial report this summer with a select group of professors—a move that some say will make the process more efficient, but has upset other committee members who say they feel out of the loop.

‘THE TOUGHEST JOB’

Meeting every Tuesday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. on the third floor of the Science Center, the 16 voting members of the Committee on General Education—and ex officio members including Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 and University President Lawrence H. Summers—had a heavy burden on their shoulders.

They were charged with creating a new set of academic guidelines after last year’s review committees called for the abolition of the Core Curriculum, the centerpiece of Harvard’s educational philosophy for almost three decades.

Centered around “approaches to knowledge,” the current Core is a closed distribution system in which students must take one course in each of seven out of 11 areas. Last year’s committee suggested a set of more open-ended distribution requirements that could be fulfilled with departmental courses, as well as the creation of new Harvard College Courses that would take a broader interdisciplinary focus.

This year’s committee was left to assess these vague suggestions and turn them into a feasible curriculum.

Rather than focusing on specifics, the new committee began by reassessing the purpose of a general education.

“We haven’t made a lot of progress towards anything concrete,” Johnstone Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker—a member of the committee—told The Crimson in October. “We’re still discussing first principles; ‘What should an undergraduate know?’”

While this curricular review has sought to tackle a broader range of issues than previous reviews—addressing topics such as a possible January term and increased study abroad—there was still a sense that general education would form the cornerstone of this review, as it has in the past.

“The general education committee has the toughest job in a sense. It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Here is a specific problem and here is a technical solution,’” says former Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05, a member of the committee, who wrote his senior thesis on the curricular review process. “[The committee] was charged with creating a soul for the curriculum.”

NO LACK OF IDEAS

Working from the idea that the Core Curriculum would be eliminated, committee members eventually began to consider course requirements that could suitably replace it.

“We all thought about courses that might be worth teaching,” says Maier. “We were writing [proposals] all the time.”

According to the committee’s internal documents and members of the committee, Pinker proposed a sequence of courses that would teach non-science concentrators about life sciences, physical sciences, and ideas of logic and probability. Committee member Louis Menand, the Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language, suggested a one-year course based on the great works of Western literature.

The committee’s two student representatives, Mahan and Nicholas F. M. Josefowitz ’05, submitted a three-page proposal in which they argued that “Harvard College Courses should stand as the central component of general education.” Their plan would have required students to take Harvard College Courses in a number of focused areas: significant works of literature, analytical and hermeneutic social sciences, biological and physical sciences, as well as ethics and citizenship.

While Mahan and Josefowitz called for Harvard College Courses that would be focused within particular academic divisions, another proposal suggested that Harvard College Courses draw from disparate disciplines in the analysis of specific topics. This proposal, written by Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies Kay K. Shelemay and Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature Diana Sorensen, set forth a number of ideas for specific Harvard College Courses, such as “Great River Systems,” a course that would examine the ecology, history, and culture of rivers such as the Mississippi. They also proposed courses with titles such as “Cities and Exchanges,” “Uncertainty,” and “Illness, Health, and Healing.”

Committee members say there was extensive discussion and debate on the various proposals at weekly meetings, but little agreement. Some members criticized Pinker’s proposal for being too restrictive, while others thought that Shelemay and Sorensen’s proposal left too much flexibility in Harvard College Courses.

A TIME FOR CONSENSUS

As the committee entered 2005, Kirby called for members to begin working towards agreement in order to have a report ready for presentation to the Faculty in the spring. One schedule from this period, included in the committee’s internal documents, listed a Feb. 4 deadline for curricular review committees to have completed their reports.

As chair of the committee, Kirby faced the difficult task of uniting committee members with drastically different views on the theory of general education.

“The job of a chair of a committee of such talented people is to give multiple points of view the chance to be aired, to work towards agreements, to be frank where there are areas of disagreement, and to work towards consensus on the part of colleagues,” Kirby says.

The committee moved away from a “one size fits all” stance on general education—requiring all students to follow a largely predetermined path—to a greater emphasis on choice. The extent and array of choices, however, remained a divisive topic as the report’s deadline approached.

Mahan suggests that Kirby may not have done enough to forge agreement on the contentious issues of the review such as the nature of Harvard College Courses and the amount of responsibility that should be placed on students to choose their own curriculum.

“I very much enjoyed hearing what the committee members had to say, but I was frustrated with the fact that we were never forced to agree on more substantive principles than choice, which seemed to be the fall-back position,” he says. “Though it wouldn’t have been easy, I think Dean Kirby could have done more to push us to make tough decisions.”

In what members say was an attempt to summarize the committee’s commonly held ideas, Kirby presented the group with the first proposal for a draft report at the end of January. This first draft was never released outside of the committee, but was included in the documents reviewed by The Crimson.

“Bill’s like a border collie, he’s got sheep going all over the place,” Maier says of Kirby’s response to disparate committee opinion. “I think [the draft] was Bill’s effort at pulling us together.”

The draft­, which is of uncertain authorship, called for all students to take one course each in quantitative and analytical reasoning, moral reasoning, and international studies, along with two courses each from the sciences, the study of societies, and the humanities and arts.

Unlike the current Core, students would have been able to fulfill most of those requirements by choosing departmental classes, but would have had to take at least one Harvard College Course.

However, a number of committee members disagreed with the specificity of the draft.

“If you start putting a lot of requirements in, you might as well stick with the old Core,” says Maier.

As work progressed throughout February, the moral reasoning requirement was removed from the report and replaced by less restrictive requirements and a statement that “special attention” should be given to such courses. The international studies requirement was removed as well, partially because committee members expected more students to participate in international studies outside of their general education requirements.

Committee members say the removal of the moral reasoning requirement was—and remains—one issue of contention within the committee.

“There is, as of yet, a state far from convergence of committee opinion” on this issue and others, committee member and Mallinckrodt Professor of Engineering Sciences and Geophysics James R. Rice writes in an e-mail.

Apart from disagreement on distribution requirements, the first draft of the report and later revisions also reflected the committee’s lack of consensus on what the format of Harvard College Courses should be.

“We couldn’t reach agreement on the [Harvard College Courses],” says Menand.

In the end, the committee recommended that Harvard College Courses impart “knowledge critical for the moral and civic challenges that undergraduates face in the wider world,” and that the courses consist of two hour-long general sessions with an associated seminar.

While many faculty members had hoped to see examples of well thought-out curricula for a Harvard College Course, the report only suggested broad areas of study in which courses could be offered.

And for those concerned with large class sizes, the Draft Final Report, which was obtained by The Crimson in March, spoke to “the advantages of increased interaction between students and instructors in a small-group setting” but suggested little that would differ fundamentally from the sections currently offered with Core classes, which surveys routinely show are a low point of students’ Harvard experiences.

Committee members say that they see the seminar portion of Harvard College Courses as being similar to the sections in Social Studies 10, “Introduction to Social Studies,” where section leaders and the course head meet weekly to ensure a high standard of instruction.

“The [Social Studies] sophomore tutorial is a very highly prepared course” because of the interaction between the instructor and his staff, says Maier. “Ideally the instructors [of Harvard College Courses] would be doing the same with their teaching staff.”

However, the March report did not detail how this interaction between the Harvard College Course’s professor and teaching staff would occur.

A POOR RECEPTION

On March 9, the committee presented its Draft Final Report to the Faculty Council, the 18-member governing body of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The report—which some thought would be the committee’s final product—was supposed to be released to the full Faculty shortly thereafter.

However, as news of the contents of the report spread, faculty and students began to express strong concern over the perceived lack of a guiding vision in the report and its failure to adequately define key aspects of its recommendations.

“We were premature in issuing a report,” says Menand.

Within three weeks, Kirby had received sufficient feedback to convince him to drop his earlier plans to release the report to the full Faculty, and he chose instead to reconvene the committee.

Kirby says colleagues sent him “comments and suggestions as to how the report might be further redefined.”

Committee members say Kirby’s decision to hold off on the report was also influenced by the hostility toward the administration in the wake of open criticism of Summers’ leadership of the University, which culminated in a vote of no confidence at a March Faculty meeting.

Some on the committee acknowledge that the report lacks sufficient justification and rationale for its conclusions and neglected to discuss the possible trade-offs inherent in increased student choice.

“In my opinion, the committee didn’t sufficiently identify the specific benefits and potential downsides related to an open distribution requirement,” says Mahan.

Kirby now says that members of the committee will work to “flesh out the rationale, which isn’t there now,” adding that they will finally address questions such as, “What are the weaknesses in the current structure that we aim to address? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Core Curriculum?”

THE CHOSEN FEW

After the report’s poor reception in March, Kirby held several meetings of the Committee on General Education to discuss problems in the report. He has since convened a group of six committee members that will work on the report over the summer.

The members of the summer subcommittee are Kirby, Menand, Maier, Professor of Philosophy Alison Simmons, Fisher Professor of Natural History and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Andrew Knoll, and Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel.

Gross will also remain involved in the process, while Summers announced this spring that he is no longer participating in the review.

Some members of the summer group say that working with fewer people will make writing more efficient and that Kirby is not trying to remove some voices from the debate.

“The committee as a whole was unwieldy,” says Menand. “[But] I don’t think anybody’s being excluded.”

However, two members of the committee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say they were unaware of Kirby’s summer plans for the report until informed by The Crimson, and expressed displeasure that they had not been kept informed.

“It is frustrating because it’s not something that we agreed upon as a committee,” says one committee member. “It would have been nice to have a little more consultation.”

A major goal of the summer subcommittee is to produce a report that is longer and more thorough than the nine-page March report. The Draft Final Report is far shorter than the reports of curricular reviews in past decades, such as the Redbook of the late 1940s, a national bestseller that laid out a theory of a liberal arts education for a post-war American society.

“The Redbook is 300 pages long,” says Menand. “The document we’re presenting is too thin.”

Kirby says he is hopeful that with a more detailed report, the Faculty will grow to understand and accept his committee’s recommendations.

“The elaboration of these issues in a longer report will help clarify some of the recommendations of this committee,” he says.

“I don’t think we’re so far away on things,” Maier says. “I would hope that by September we would have a report.”

While members of the small summer group say they hope to have a report ready by the fall, other members of the General Education committee express doubts that this goal is attainable.

“It’s clear that nothing is going to emerge before the end of the summer,” says Rice, who says scheduling problems held the committee back during the year and expects such problems to continue into the summer.

Another fear is that the work will fail to address the deeper problems that some say plague the report.

“My biggest concern is that [they will] simply dress up the current report and try to push it through in the fall,” says Mahan.

More than a year has passed since an early curricular review committee called for the dissolution of the Core and its replacement with a combination of distribution requirements and vaguely defined Harvard College Courses. After close to 20 committee meetings and countless pages of proposals, Harvard is now only nine pages closer to articulating a new vision for general education, and many of last year’s questions and doubts remain. A few select committee members now find themselves toiling to reach landmarks they hoped to have already passed.

“The work has been slower and more frustrating than any of us expected it would be,” says Menand, but he adds, “it’s work that has to be done.”

—Staff writer Allison A. Frost can be reached at afrost@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Evan H. Jacobs can be reached at ehjacobs@fas.harvard.edu.

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