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What Happened?

By Harry R. Lewis

Rabbit and Owl were stranded on an island as the floodwaters started to rise. “How am I to get off?” screamed Rabbit. “Grow wings and fly away,” said Owl. Rabbit was momentarily reassured, but when Owl took flight, Rabbit asked, “How do I grow wings?”

“I do policy,” Owl gravely responded.

Presidents, deans, and professors have completed the policy phase of Harvard’s Curricular Review. The General Education curriculum had a difficult birth. Former University President Lawrence H. Summers and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby orphaned the Core Curriculum in 2003, without a vision of what should replace it. When a dazzling replacement did not develop quickly, the President disappeared from the discussion and was not heard from again. A year ago, an increasingly leaderless Faculty proposed a simple distribution requirement.

Last fall, the Task Force on General Education issued an inspired and dramatic report, parts of which drew heavy Faculty criticism. The Task Force revised its report twice, and then was dissolved. As Faculty legislation was drafted and amended, no visionary shaped the curriculum. A largely interim administration was determined to get something—anything—voted on before the end of the year. Area boundaries were stretched to accommodate departments excluded from the Task Force recommendations. The result is an oddly divided and rather too large distribution requirement, leaving us questioning what exactly happened, and who got trapped in the process.

What happened to intellectual exploration?

Intellectual exploration was a watchword of the early stages of the review. Interdisciplinarity was another. Yet when we separated colliding fields in the General Education curriculum and sought to include everything somewhere, we wound up with an eight-course requirement. A tautly drawn six, pushing some fields together and omitting others, would have been better: In the new system, students may have less curricular freedom than ever. Our years of weak leadership will translate into thousands of extra course requirements for each entering class.

New policies encourage students to pursue secondary fields, freshman seminars, language citations, and study abroad. However, a concentration plus a secondary field plus Expos, plus a language requirement, plus a freshman seminar, plus eight General Education courses add up to anywhere from 27 to 33 courses. And that’s assuming you’re a candidate for a Bachelor of Arts (not going for a Bachelor of Science) and not studying abroad. Concentration requirements have been cut back a bit—but that was the wrong place to make room, particularly in competitive scientific and technical fields.

Under the new curriculum, freshmen will again be laying out four-year grids showing what to do in which term to achieve everything they must do—or feel they must do in order to distinguish themselves. Advising will be about filling slots, not expanding the mind. No one will want to take a course unless it accomplishes something.

What happened to reason?

To see how the curricular process worked, consider the fate of the Task Force’s “Reason and Faith” proposal. This idea worried some professors who are—justifiably—distressed by the advance of unreason in society. Johnstone Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker put the issue most plainly: “Universities are about reason, pure and simple.” Faith belongs in churches and temples, not at Harvard.

But the rationalists did themselves no favor by scuttling the “Reason and Faith” idea. Forget religion: More Americans believe in astrology than in evolution. The way to combat unreason is to have students engage the dissonance between faith and reason—not avoid it. Instead, faith seems now to have been renamed “belief” and paired with “culture,” where it will ruffle no feathers.

And “reason?” One area was originally called “Empirical Reasoning.” Seeking to explain that proposed requirement, some argued, unconvincingly, that it was needed because students couldn’t learn scientific method, as well as science, in their two required science courses. The mathematicians argued that Harvard could not mount a curriculum excluding mathematics, so the “empirical” area was broadened to include “mathematical reasoning.” All of which leaves reason nowhere in particular.

What happened to advising?

In early 2003, Dean Kirby kicked off the Curricular Review by bravely declaring, “We must overhaul the system by which students are, and more often, are not, given academic advice by faculty.” Scores of Faculty freshman advisers were recruited. Yet strangely, the fully overhauled system will have less Faculty advising than the old, not more. There are now undergraduate peer advisers and an Advising Programs Office with nine staff members. But next fall, no professor will advise any first-term sophomore. All sophomore advisors will be House tutors. Even professors who are members of House Senior Common Rooms will be excluded as sophomore advisers.

This happened through the same failure to see the big picture that caused problems in General Education. When the Faculty postponed concentration choice to mid-sophomore year, it did not mean to vote itself a 17 percent cut in advising workload. Surely, if a choice has to be made, Faculty should advise sophomores deciding on concentrations rather than freshmen. In designing the student experience, everyone had the best intentions at the micro level. At the macro level…there wasn’t any macro level. In the absence of unifying leadership, an incoherent program evolved.

What happened to the needs of our students?

The biggest missed opportunity of the review was the opportunity to serve our students. Harvard has become far more diverse over the past 30 years, not only in gender and in ethnicity, but in the socio-economic status of its students. In the past few years, the number of students with very low family incomes has increased dramatically. Those students, though they are just as able and ambitious as other students, tend to be poorly prepared for Harvard’s coursework. Equivalent SAT scores do not imply equal preparation for Harvard.

Harvard admits the best students from the best high schools in America and also the best students from the worst high schools in America. Nothing in the Curricular Review acknowledged that many American high schools have gotten worse over the past 30 years and that the demographic of the Harvard student body has changed. Family income and social class affect preparedness for courses such as Life Sciences 1a and 1b, our new one-size-fits-all introductory sequence in the life sciences.

In the long run, the most serious failure of the Curricular Review may be its failure to confront the educational consequences of socio-economic diversity. The new administration must work to see that all students, especially those for whom Harvard can work the most magic, have a real opportunity for everything Harvard has to offer.

Harry R. Lewis is McKay Professor of Computer Science and Harvard College Professor. He was dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003. He is the author of “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education.”

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