Blogs > Cliopatria > Harvard's Curricular Stirrings

Apr 27, 2004 8:14 am

Harvard's Curricular Stirrings

They're stirring the curriculum at Harvard. I like this paragraph:
Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers, said of the emphasis on science:"An educational culture where it's an embarrassment to not know the names of five plays by Shakespeare but O.K. not to know the difference between a gene and a chromosome isn't functional."
If I could dictate a sole required course over in that division for our students it wouldn't be biology, though -- it would be statistics. I think a good statistics course is essential for the committee's goal that "Graduates of Harvard College should be able to understand the news and expository articles in journals such as Science and Nature."

I'd be even happier if they require serious language study before students go abroad -- and to my mildly informed knowledge that's not common in American study abroad programs that aren't focused on language programs. For instance, we have programs in France and the Dominican Republic that have prerequisites stiff enough to limit them to majors or minors in the target languages, but we let people amble off to India and Italy with a semester of study, about 40 contact hours over 15 weeks (more or less). That's not at all uncommon (I've looked at lots of other places programs on the web while arguing about our requirements last year).

One can make noises about educating people to not think an anglophone world is inevitable, but not learning langugages is a tradition in American education difficult to dislodge.

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Michael C Tinkler - 4/29/2004

I agree with RHMorgan - I don't think that leaving the decisions entirely to the students (Brown) is useful (at least not at that price! If you're working full time and taking one course at a time for fun, take whatever you please).

On a smaller scale we have a generational difference (not a conflict - we're too nice for that!) in my department. The two senior art historians (in service) have no prerequisites and have set all their course numbers either at 100 or 200 (with only senior seminars excepted). The junior (not entirely by age, only by time of service) are creating sequences from 100 to 200 to 300 to 400 level courses. We juniors make exceptions, of course, but we are trying to TELL students that we intend people in 300 level courses to know things covered in 100 level courses.

We can't do anything about the College level curriculum, but in the Art department we can outlive the 1970s!

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/29/2004

I wasn't really thinking of microeconomics strictly from the point of view of economics (but certainly to include that), but as a theory of choice -- such as applicable to public choice theory (Buchanan and Mancur Olsen) and strategy (say, Schelling's Micromotives and Macrobehaviour). Yeah, the Core had its faults, but I continue to believe that some knowledge just is more valuable to the learner and to society than some other knowledge (a trimmed down Core?). I don't think Brown is the answer -- where one needn't have a major, or take a course for grades.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/29/2004

If you're going to require economics, you might also require ethics, as the two seem to be very much in tension these days.....

Seriously, though, I taught in the Core program, and it's old and creaky. The theory might have been sound, but the system was falling apart ten years ago.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/27/2004

Many schools require only a year or two of a foreign language for a BA, and none for a BS. Some have substituted a programming language for a second foreign language at the doctoral level. My alma mater (shall it ever remain anonymous) was one of the last to drop Greek and Latin as ENTRANCE requirements -- they packed off one applicant without the requirements to a little school near Boston, called Harvard, where he was graduated summa cum laude.

In my imagined curriculum I would add some requirements to Michael's science requirement of statistics: a course from the humanities in logic, and a course in the social sciences in microeconomics. There seems to be no end to the number of people who don't understand the functioning of the price system.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/27/2004

I won't go into "back in my day" stuff, except to note that when I graduated from Duke, we were required to have taken either two years of two foreign languages or three years of one foreign language in order to graduate. I had friends who failed many hours of foreign languages trying to satisfy that requirement. In the "reforms" of the curriculum in the '60's and '70's, I take it, language requirements went by the wayside, along with a lot of other stuff. Perhaps we just didn't understand that scrapping them wasn't particularly radical, but that it merely bowed and scraped to common variety American provincialism.