News Analysis: After Missteps, Harvard Cuts A Path Apart From Its Peers

With today’s general education report, this one-time training ground for Puritan ministers resurrects part of its historical emphasis on faith, at the same time as it responds to a recent rise in religious conflict across the globe.

Critics of this curricular review’s earlier plans to replace the Core with broad distribution requirements said that Harvard was simply following in the footsteps of other Ivy League schools. Now, by moving to become the only Ivy that requires its undergrads to study religion and American history, Harvard is finding a new path.

The requirement that all students take a course focusing on the interplay between reason and faith—whether in wars of religion or debates over stem cell research—is unique among Harvard’s secular peer institutions. Columbia, which requires students to read parts of the Bible and Koran in its great books program, comes closest.

The so-called “Reason and Faith” requirement emerged early in the discussions that led to the new report, said Bass Professor of English Literature Louis Menand, one of the chairs of the six-professor committee that drafted the proposals this summer.

“Religion turns out to be an enormously important phenomenon in the world, which 30 or 40 years ago we didn’t think we had to deal with,” Menand said.

While the Reason and Faith category is unlike anything that Harvard mandates today—marking a clear break from the more philosophical focus of most present-day Moral Reasoning offerings—the report notes that the course catalogue already includes many options that would fulfill the new requirement.

For example, Social Studies 98ic, “Why Americans Love God and Europeans Don’t,” and Human Evolutionary Biology 1355, “Darwin Seminar: Evolution and Religion,” would both satisfy the Reason and Faith requirement, according to the report.

But the proposed Reason and Faith requirement, which appears likely to emerge as a defining characteristic of today’s report, might never make it into the Student Handbook.

It’s “the most vulnerable” component of the proposal, said Professor of Philosophy Alison Simmons, the other co-chair of the group that produced the report.

“We expect the categories may change, and I expect there to be a lot of lively debate about that category,” Simmons said.

The proposed requirements still must be approved by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences before they become binding.

The expectation that all students engage with American history hearkens back to Harvard’s 1945 Red Book program, which emphasized the inculcation of American civic values.

“The world is different, but the idea is the same,” Menand said.

The Red Book resulted from an effort by then-University President James Bryant Conant ’14 to define general education and civic responsibility in the wake of the Second World War.

Like the Red Book, today’s report reflects the influence of recent global events. “I wouldn’t say we discussed 9/11 in the committee,” Menand said, but “I think most Americans think the event put into focus the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world in a way people hadn’t thought about very clearly.”


The report explicitly links all proposed general education requirements with real-life concerns—a feature that distinguishes Harvard’s path from other Ivies’.

At Yale or Princeton, a standard introductory course in chemistry would count towards the science requirement. But Harvard’s new report would require that a general education science course frame scientific material in the context of social issues.

And the new report’s requirement that students take a course in “Analytical Reasoning” can’t be satisfied by a straight mathematics class—a distinction that means even math concentrators would have to take a course teaching them how to apply statistics or game theory to real-life situations.

Under the new plan, the current Core’s three Literature and Arts requirements would be replaced by a single category of “Cultural Traditions and Cultural Change.”

That requirement might be satisfied by the popular musical history course “First Nights”—meaning that students could conceivably graduate from Harvard without having to read a single novel, poem, or play.


A previous report that would have replaced the Core with a system of distribution requirements was released this past January, but it met an icy reception. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations Peter K. Bol told The Crimson, “I think that people are beginning to realize that we’re so close to embarrassing ourselves.”

The report’s lack of originality led Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature Judith L. Ryan to say, “It’s not going to put Harvard on the front page of The New York Times.”

Today’s report acknowledges the failure of the January attempt.

“We felt that the [January] report does not offer a clear enough rationale for a general education curriculum, and we noted that many colleagues, in discussions of the recommendations, expressed the same concern.”

While it remains to be seen whether the new report will make waves across higher education, its authors say they have no ambitions to stir those waters.

“We don’t have any aspirations for other colleges,” Menand said. “Our main interest was what was good for Harvard."

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at
—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at

See The Crimson's other coverage of the new general education report:
Report Recasts the Core
Timeline: The Difficult Road to Today's Report