Campus & Community

As part of curriculum review, FAS listens to “Views from Outside Cambridge”:

5 min read

Professors from Yale, Brown, and Columbia describe how their schools educate their undergraduates

In a recent, lively discussion in the Fong Auditorium in Boylston Hall, three professors from Yale, Brown, and Columbia universities described how their schools educate their undergraduates. Their philosophies of education ran the gamut, representing different worldviews on what a college education is all about.

This Nov. 14 symposium, the second this month, is part of Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Dean William C. Kirby’s efforts to gather feedback on Harvard’s curriculum – from Harvard faculty, students, alumni, and, as the title of the symposium suggested, “Views From Outside Cambridge.” Kirby, working closely with Dean for Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross, hopes to appoint task forces to examine different aspects of the curriculum by the end of the semester.

Paul Armstrong ’71, dean of Brown College and professor of English, spoke of how central student freedom, and student initiative, were to the implementation of “The Curriculum,” as Brown calls its plan of study. Brown students design their own curricula, with no distribution requirements other than that they successfully complete 30 out of 32 courses, each of which can be taken for a grade or pass/fail (“Satisfactory/No Credit” in Brown lingo).

Underpinning this curriculum, Armstrong said, is a profound belief that students learn best when they study the things that interest them; and that actively pursuing one’s interests, and taking responsibility for the shape of one’s life, are essential lessons in becoming mature adults, and engaged citizens, in life after college. The pass/fail option, Armstrong said, encourages students to “take risks without negative consequences,” and the diversity of students’ curricula on campus feeds an environment where difference, and fruitful collaboration amidst difference, is highly valued.

Brown is a “community of communities,” Armstrong said. Given the reinvention of Brown’s curricular principles by every student who rings his or her own changes on those principles, The Curriculum is “constantly being tested, constantly being transformed, constantly evolving,” said Armstrong.

Such an open curriculum, he noted, does require intensive advising to ensure students use their freedom well. It also invites such questions as whether writing or foreign language requirements at other schools are equivalently met at Brown.

Richard Brodhead, who is Dean of Yale College and A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of English and American Studies, leavened his droll humor with serious insights into the nature of undergraduate education, and the success of curricular reviews. Currently leading Yale College’s own review of its curriculum, Brodhead noted that Stanford and Princeton, as well as Harvard, have undertaken similar reviews in recent years.

“Why this fit of self-scrutiny at the great universities in America?” he asked.

The “Yale way,” as he put it, seemed to occupy a middle ground between Brown and Harvard, in some ways. Yale, like Harvard, designates areas in which students must take courses, in addition to their concentration; the four “groups” at Yale include, broadly speaking, English and foreign languages and literature; the arts and humanities; the social sciences; and math and the sciences. But “Yale will never have Expos,” Brodhead said, his shorthand for the key distinction that Yale does not prescribe specific courses, or set aside a separate set of courses, as Harvard does with its expository writing requirement, or with the Core Curriculum.

Substituting the term “multiversity” for university, Brodhead echoed the Brownian notion that freedom to pursue one’s own interests, however idiosyncratically combined, is an essential part of the learning experience. “Education is an event that takes place in the mind,” he said; it is not automatically achieved through the fulfillment of external requirements.

Citing one of Yale’s most famous alumna, architect Maya Lin, who came to Yale planning to major in zoology, and then ended up an architect, Brodhead said that students often learn “by unforeseen means. You can’t do it for them.”

The third panelist, Michael Stanislawski ’73, A.M. ’75, Ph.D. ’79, hails from Columbia, where he is professor of Jewish history. Stanislawski described Columbia’s Core Curriculum. Columbia requires its students to take courses in Western art, Western music, Western literature and philosophy, logic and rhetoric, and “contemporary civilization.” Columbia also requires courses in non-Western cultures, foreign languages, and science. Stanislawski praised the fact that these Core courses are kept small, and are taught by faculty, not graduate students. In large classes, he noted, “I perforce become more of a performer than a teacher.” As any New Yorker knows, he said, “The real theater occurs off-Broadway,” in smaller, intimate settings, not in the grand spaces of the Great White Way.

Dean Gross, who moderated the symposium, commented on “how helpful it was to have faculty at other institutions describe the strengths and weaknesses of their curricula, and the situations in which they were developed.”

Brodhead noted that, historically speaking, “Universities excel at finding new ways of becoming themselves.” Whether Harvard’s new curriculum is the very glass of fashion and mould of form – or a recognizable version of its former self – remains to be seen.