Harvard Reconsiders Core-Course Requirements
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It's a complaint that many college students have made. When will I ever need to know this? From ancient history to the laws of physics, undergrads complain about the obscure courses they're required to take to graduate. Now Harvard University is taking those complaints seriously. The faculty is planning to meet next week to consider a major overhaul of its general education requirements.
NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: At Harvard, they're known as the universe through a grain of sand courses, those classes that are extremely narrow and focused and deep in detail, taught by scholars who've spent a career on something like Chinese imaginary space, the rise and fall of the samurai, or gladiatorial combat in ancient Roman games.
Professor KATHLEEN COLEMAN (Harvard University): Now, we have a very, very interesting topic to do today, which is the topic of magic and the Roman amphitheater.
SMITH: Professor Kathleen Coleman teaches History B6, which according to the course catalogue examines evidence of staged beast hunts, executions and aquatic displays in the Roman world.
Professor COLEMAN: I would like to emphasize that there is no accessible material on this topic in English.
SMITH: Roman games is one of the ways Harvard students can satisfy their history requirement, as a so-called core course. It's meant to teach students about a discipline and how scholars think. The specific subject matters less than methodology, which leads some students, like freshman Walter Cleese(ph), both intrigued as well as a bit befuddled.
Mr. WALTER CLEESE (Student): I mean like I'm always going to tell my kids I took a class on gladiators, you know? I mean how cool is that? I can't really tell you why, why this it important.
SMITH: To other students that question of relevance is a source of great frustration. Take Daniel Gonzales Chrisberg(ph), a science major who can't find a broad survey class to satisfy his arts requirement.
Mr. DANIEL CHRISBERG (Student): The classes that count are the Gothic Cathedral; there's a class on the art of Sulaiman the Great, an Ottoman emperor, and it's like - it's maybe actually really fascinating for the professor, whose job is to research that particular thing, but doesn't necessarily have a relevancy to what the students will be doing in the future.
SMITH: The reforms Harvard is now considering would make that kind of relevancy a requirement of required courses.
Professor LUKE MENAND(ph) (Harvard University): All we're saying is, let's tell them why it matters.
SMITH: English professor Luke Menand is helping to redesign Harvard's core curriculum, and while it may sound simple, it's about as revolutionary as things get at a place like Harvard.
The new plan basically ignores departments and disciplines, and instead sorts courses by broad topics, many of which look a lot like the section headings of a daily newspaper.
For example, there's a category that covers culture, one for science, one for the world, and one for the U.S., which, for example, could include a sociology class on education in the U.S. or an economics class on race in America.
Professor MENAND: In that way, yeah, they could graduate without taking a history course, but they'll learn something about America. They could graduate without taking a literature course, but they'll learn something about culture.
And we think that that's probably wiser, to say, well, what subject matter ought students to know about, given that most of them are not going to become professors?
SMITH: It's not an easy sell, however, to convince the world's most brilliant academics to stop teaching undergrads to think like academics.
Professor PETER BURKHART(ph) (Harvard University): These are things that we are, of course, most qualified to teach them.
SMITH: German literature professor Peter Burkhart calls the proposed changes anti-intellectual. As he sees it, the old school disciplinary approach is more important for this generation of students than it ever was.
Professor BERKOWITZ: Precisely because few of them do go on to careers in academia. Let us have them spend those four years just living a life of the mind and pursuing academic topics. And that in itself is preparation enough for life after Harvard, I think.
SMITH: Critics also call the plan shortsighted, especially a now-defunct idea to require students to take religion, so they'd better understand the stem-cell debate or post-9/11 politics.
History professor Marcus Kishlansky(ph) says it's pointless to teach to current issues that may be irrelevant long before graduates hit their 10-year reunion.
Professor MARCUS KISHLANSKY (Harvard University): Go back to the beginning of the century and people were concerned about how far they could walk to markets or how many years you get out of your horse. That's not anything anybody worries about anymore. You know, if that's what you learned, that wouldn't have served you well.
SMITH: Besides, Kishlansky says, Harvard professors will likely balk at having to teach core courses outside of their own niche.
Professor KISHLANSKY: You would never ask the scientists to teach broad surveys of physics when they are world experts on string theory. And you'd be furious if they were in there teaching advanced high school physics in a survey so that the literature majors will know the difference between friction and impact, or if there is a difference between friction and impact.
SMITH: As is usually the case with Harvard, other schools are watching closely. The debate is not just academic. Experts say a curriculum more connected to life after college would attract more first generation college students who tend to see a liberal arts education and the concept of knowledge for its own sake as a luxury they can't afford.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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