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Curricular Cooperation, Please

By William C. Marra

The chief lesson Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Class of 1861, took from his time fighting in the Civil War, according to Bass Professor of English Louis Menand, is that “certitude leads to violence”—that a dogmatic confidence in one’s beliefs and an unwillingness to compromise begets conflict and war. If Holmes, a former Harvard professor, were to return to Cambridge today and look to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), he would be disappointed to see that certitude has wracked this institution he loved so dearly, leading to four years of political violence, rancor, and quagmire during the Faculty’s most important undertaking in a generation, its Curricular Review.

When I enrolled at Harvard and subsequently began covering the Faculty for The Crimson, it was a time of great expectations for Harvard’s flagship faculty. It had, for the first time in nearly three decades, launched a comprehensive effort to completely revamp undergraduate education at Harvard. Meanwhile FAS, and in particular the sciences, promised to be at the center of the University’s multi-billion dollar campus expansion across the Charles River into Allston, for which plans—and donors—were being lined up.

Since then it has been the best of times, and the worst of times. FAS has grown enormously in power after exercising a very public veto over one Harvard president and wielding private influence to elevate one of its own, Drew G. Faust, to the vacated bully pulpit. The Curricular Review is complete: Undergraduate concentration choice has been moved to the sophomore year; students have the option of taking secondary fields in addition to their concentrations; and a new system of general education, which revamps the Core with an increased focus on contemporary issues, passed the Faculty last month. Yet the road to where we are today has left Harvard and the Faculty deeply scarred and has exposed serious flaws within FAS that threaten to undermine the new curriculum just as they did the soon-to-be-defunct Core.

The new General Education system requires students to take one course across eight different areas of study, including, among others, “Culture and Belief,” “The United States and the World,” and “Science of the Physical Universe.” Professors will apply to the Standing Committee on General Education, chaired by Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris, for their course to be accepted to one of the eight fields. This framework hopes to eschew the liabilities of the Core, most notably its limited choice and poor course selection, through a more judicious and broadly conceived review process.

The road to this requirement was astoundingly rocky, characterized by internal politics and turf wars rather than a communal quest for the best curriculum. Discussions were put on hold for months at a time during the winters of 2005 and 2006, while the Faculty lambasted Summers and his leadership style. When the review—and in particular its centerpiece, the General Education requirement—was on the agenda, discussion was characterized both in committee and among the full Faculty by a striking inability to work together and agree on any meaningful proposals.

The height of this confusion came in 2005. In March, after the review had been on hold for months because of the Summers affair, the Faculty Council, FAS’s governing body, blocked the proposals of a general education committee from ever reaching the full Faculty because they were so devoid of philosophy and meaning. Scrambling to salvage the review, a new group of professors released another report in November that attempted to please everyone by requiring students to take three courses each in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Unsurprisingly, this report, which again lacked any meaningful definition of general education, pleased no one and was also quickly squashed. Once again a Faculty committee was sent to the drawing board. Unable to agree on anything and fatigued of the issue, professors last month approved a new set of proposals, which effectively upgrades the Core by redefining it with a more contemporary focus and eschewing the Core’s strict requirements on the number of papers and exams an approved General Education course must offer.

Understanding all these failures brings us back to Holmes and certitude. Faculty members approached the legislation not as politicians willing to compromise but as academics convinced that their own field must be included in the end product. As representatives of their disciplines, and not of the entire College and its students, they broadened proposals to include their own fields and courses. The cumulative effect was one of meaningless proposals, stretched to the point where they lacked any ideological or intellectual bite. The prime example is the November 2005 report, which resembled, in its inclusion of every course across all departments, a terrible piece of pork barrel legislation rather than a meaningful attempt at casting undergraduate education. Thanks to the enormous political clout professors had won from Summers’ downfall, neither the president nor other administrators had the power to reign in these partisan efforts.

The fate of the General Education requirement rests in the ability of Harris’ standing committee to overcome the certitude and deadlock of the past four years. They will be faced with proposals by Faculty members for courses that do not fit the guise of the General Education philosophy. They must have the academic and political acumen to say no.

Above all, the Faculty must rise to the occasion. It must show as much enthusiasm in offering new courses as it did when over 400 faculty members showed up to attend a vote of no confidence in Summers. The lack of enthusiasm evidenced by Curricular Review votes that barely reached a Faculty quorum, and professors’ certitude and inability to cooperate, must give way to a newly concerted communal effort. That did not happen in the past four years, but it needs to start happening if the new curriculum is to work for professors—and most importantly, for students.

William C. Marra ’07 is a government concentrator in Currier House. He was president of The Crimson in 2006.

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