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Professors Say This Core Is Solid

Little space for literature and the arts, but new Gen Ed proposal gets good reviews

The proposed overhaul of the College’s Core curriculum released last week has already mollified several outspoken Faculty critics of the four-year-old attempt to update Harvard’s general education requirements—and professors said the plan stands a strong chance of gaining the full Faculty’s approval in the coming months.

While some professors say the review leaves scant space for literature and the arts, and others suggested it tries too hard to be a response to the 9/11 attacks, the current proposal has met a much warmer reception than previous Core overhaul plans.

“This is a vast improvement over what we had before, and is something that actually has a rationale that people can relate to and think about and debate,” said Gary J. Feldman, the Baird professor of science.

Feldman was one of several professors who criticized the previous general education committee for failing to articulate a compelling and original vision for general education at Harvard.

Last year’s general education proposals would have required students to take three courses in each of three disciplinary divisions: Arts and Humanities, Science and Technology, and Study of Societies.

“I believe that the previous proposal may have looked like a cop-out to other institutions,” said Thomas Forrest Kelly, the Knafel professor of music and leader of the popular Core class, Literature and Arts B-51, “First Nights.” Now, he added, “I think people will say Harvard is coming to its senses.”

The new report emphasizes the application of skills and ideas learned in the academy to real world problems, and would require students to take courses in seven areas, including one in the history or culture of the United States, and another on “Reason and Faith.”

NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT?

But while many professors praised the report for providing a vision of what general education should accomplish, some said the focus on the present might compromise the broader goals of a liberal arts education.

Chair of the History Department Andrew D. Gordon ’74 said the new general education requirements may focus too closely on aspects of the past that seem relevant to contemporary conflicts—like “Historical Study B-11: The Crusades,” one of the courses mentioned in the new report—at the cost of wider historical understanding.

“Preparing students through general education to be citizens of a changing global world is a fine basic premise...[but] it seems to be rather narrowly defined” in the report, Gordon said.

“The report seems written too much in the shadow of 9/11,” he added.

Porter Professor of Medieval Latin Jan M. Ziolkowski wrote in an e-mail that the report “continues to be an opportunity missed as far as the humanities are concerned.”

Kelly pointed out that a student could take a course in literature to fulfill their “Cultural Traditions and Cultural Change” requirement and never take a course in the fine arts.

“I regret that a lot,” he said.

HARVARD GETS RELIGION

While some professors are concerned with the way their academic fields were addressed in the recommendations, others welcomed the report’s focus on areas not currently required by the Core.

“[Professors] in the study of religion were pleasantly surprised,” said Professor of the Practice of Indo-Muslim Languages and Cultures Ali S. Asani, who teaches Foreign Cultures 70, “Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Society.”

“One of the big problems we face in the world today is...illiteracy of religion and culture,” Asani said, adding that understanding faith in society could help combat stereotypes.

The full Faculty is expected to begin discussion of the new recommendations in November.

While several points of contention have already emerged, even professors with criticisms of the new recommendations were optimistic that this report will fare better than previous ones.

The new report, “if tweaked here and there, stands a good chance of satisfying enough of the faculty to be passed eventually,” Ziolkowski wrote.

Weary Professor of German and Comparitive Literature Judith L. Ryan said the six-member task force that met over the summer to draft the report had “reconceived the General Education program and created something new out of whole cloth.”

“I think this will reinvigorate the faculty,” Ryan said.

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at lbeckett@fas.harvard.edu.

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

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