William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), announced at this Tuesday’s faculty meeting plans to undertake a comprehensive review of the undergraduate curriculum. This review, the first such examination in almost 30 years, is designed to ensure Harvard’s continuing “position of strength” among institutions of higher education, said Kirby in a letter sent to FAS faculty preceding the faculty meeting.
“It is an ideal time for a review in another way,” Kirby said recently. “President Summers, and many members of the faculty, have urged strong attention to undergraduate education, and are very supportive of the idea of a review.”
“Harvard College has a rich modern history of self-examination and rejuvenation,” Kirby wrote in his letter, citing periodic reinventions of Harvard’s curriculum during its almost 400-year history. “[A]s we embark on our own self-examination, we should not shy away from the simplest – and hardest – questions. What will it mean to be an educated woman or man in the first quarter of the 21st century? What are the enduring goals of a liberal education, and how can they be provided in the setting of a modern research university?”
Kirby posed other “simple, hard” questions for the faculty’s review. How do we define and teach the shared elements, or “core,” of every Harvard undergraduate’s education? Not only how broadly, but how deeply, should a student be encouraged to learn in a given field? How do we teach, at home and abroad, students who will live and work in all parts of the world? How can we further meaningful teacher-student interactions and draw upon the strengths of not only the College and FAS, but the other schools at Harvard?
“Bill is asking no less than how we prepare our students for the challenges of living in a global community,” said Dean for Undergraduate Education Benedict Gross, whose office will play a major role in the curricular review. “What we teach, and how we teach it, as we move into a new century, are questions of the utmost importance. I look forward to working with Bill and our faculty in exploring the answers.”
“Undergraduate education is at the heart of what we do. We should make sure that our students are able to take full advantage of the resources and intellectual range of a great research university in a global world,” said President Lawrence H. Summers. “This means, above all, fostering the engagement of students and faculty with each other and with the most challenging questions of our time. I look forward to working with Deans Kirby and Gross and my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in this crucial undertaking.”
At this week’s faculty meeting, Kirby emphasized his desire to gather the thoughts and recommendations of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as alumni and alumnae, during this first of what may be a multiyear process of renovation. In addition, symposia will be held this fall to generate further creative discussion. Open to Harvard students and faculty, the first symposium on Nov. 6 will consider the Core Curriculum. On Nov. 14, guest speakers from Brown University, Yale University, and Columbia University will participate in a discussion of other models of undergraduate education. Kirby anticipates forming a more detailed plan for addressing the issues that arise by the end of the fall semester.
In a recent address in the Memorial Church, Kirby invited his audience to reconceive the traditional associations of the season.
“It is autumn here in Cambridge, a time that, in the natural world, is associated with the onset of dormancy – leaves falling – and the prelude to winter. In Chinese history – my area of study – autumn was the time for executions.
“For us, however, autumn is a time for renaissance.”