Campus & Community

Considering the curriculum

4 min read

Symposium looks closely at Core

For six hours on Sunday (Nov. 23), approximately 60 faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates shared their thoughts about the ongoing review of the Harvard College curriculum.

The symposium, organized by members of the Curricular Review Steering Committee, contextualized the review within larger changes in academia and society. The panels, titled “What We Teach,” “Culture, the Economy, and the Curriculum,” and “The Students We Teach,” addressed changes in the way knowledge is organized, developments in society and higher education, and the curricular implications of an increasingly diverse student body. Each panel included a member of the Curricular Review working groups, other FAS faculty, and on one panel, the president of Harvard.

Since fall, four working groups, comprised of about 60 faculty and students, have intensively considered issues relating to concentrations, general education, pedagogy, and students’ overall academic experience at Harvard College.

“There are no simple answers, and we very much welcome debate,” said Lizabeth Cohen, Jones Professor of American Studies in the History Department and co-chair of the working group on pedagogy. Peter Bol, Harvard College professor, Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and co-chair of the working group on general education, described the symposium as the “beginning of a sustained conversation” with the entire Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Attendees not only thought, but ate, out of the box, quipped Harvard College Professor and Bass Professor of Government Michael Sandel during the lunch presentation of Thomas Bender, University Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at New York University. Bender’s survey of higher education from the 19th through 21st centuries concluded with suggestions for Harvard’s review.

Throughout the day, certain themes recurred. Several panelists described the persistent power of the disciplines to organize the academy, even as scholarly work increasingly crosses subject boundaries.

Others recounted the move from unitary, Western-centered curricula toward curricula marked by a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The deep scrutiny of texts and social arrangements by such scholars as Clifford Geertz, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty has eroded the confident vision of the 1945 “Red Book,” the Harvard study of “General Education in a Free Society.”

“We inhabit a culture of fragmentation, specialization, and critique,” said James Kloppenberg, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History. This leaves, he suggested, a hunger in students for “truths that can be known and values that can be defended.”

As a member of the panel on “Culture, the Economy, and the Curriculum,” Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers noted three trends in society. In addition to the impact of science and technology, Summers referred to the wider dissemination, and application, of academic knowledge and modes of analysis in nonacademic fields.

And despite the individualistic nature of the academic experience – reading, writing, taking exams on one’s own – Summers noted that success after college is increasingly tied to a person’s ability to collaborate with others.

Addressing both change and eternal verities may be the ongoing challenge of college curricula; and yoking a program of study to a larger purpose recurred as a concern.

Thomas Bender, one of the leading historians of higher education, urged a “dialogue between academic knowledge and everyday knowledge”: a curriculum that helps students use their knowledge outside the academic context.

Benedict H. Gross, dean of Harvard College, said, “This was an excellent opportunity to hear from our faculty, and from Professor Bender, about the intellectual developments of the past several decades. It will serve as a guide to the working groups, as they think about a new curriculum for our students.”

According to William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, “That so many, so talented colleagues would gather together on a Sunday morning for a full day’s discussion reflecting on the purposes of undergraduate education shows how this review has captured the interest and energies of our faculty. It was an extraordinarily stimulating day.”