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Harvard May Revise Curriculum Religion and United States Studies May Be in Core Curriculum

By Marcella Bombardieri

Harvard’s idea of what every student should study before donning cap and gown may be about to change dramatically.

Undergraduate education should be far more relevant to the real world than it is now, according to a curriculum task force’s proposal distributed to professors Wednesday. The courses students are required to take, outside their majors, should teach them what they need to know to be responsible citizens in the 21st century, no matter what career they choose.

And what they need to know, the report says, includes two major subjects that Harvard does not require students to study now: religion and the United States.

Today, the Core Curriculum, as it is known, is more esoteric, and students could fill a literature requirement with a narrowly focused course called “Women Writers in Imperial China.” If the faculty adopts the proposal, students would be more likely to take something broader, like “The Emergence of World Literature,” or “Art and Censorship.”

Faculty will probably discuss the report at a November meeting, and may vote on a final draft early next year, according to a task force leader.

Supporters see the proposal, the latest twist in three years of controversy over the curriculum, as part of broader efforts to make the faculty more responsive to the needs and interests of students.

“The Core was really designed to get faculty to agree to teach in it,” by allowing them to teach whatever they wanted, said Mary C. Waters, a sociologist who served on the task force.

In contrast, future course requirements should connect scholarship with “what you are going to be like, and what the world is going to be like, when you get out of college,” said Louis Menand, an English professor and task force cochairman.

The report addresses what to do about general education, the required courses students take outside of their majors, roughly a year’s worth of work. The Core, designed amidst the culture wars of the 1970s, requires students to take courses that expose them to different “approaches to knowledge,” regardless of the subjects.

The new proposal harkens back to an earlier era at Harvard, when professors were less squeamish about imposing values. During World War II, the college designed a curriculum that sought to define what students needed to know in order to contribute to society, and which was widely influential in academia.

The report says students should be required to take one course in each of seven categories: Cultural Traditions and Cultural Change, the Ethical Life, the United States, Societies of the World, Reason and Faith, Life Sciences, and Physical Sciences. (Some existing requirements, like foreign language, would remain.)

Possible course topics, the task force suggested, could be “The Wars of Religion,” “Stem Cells and Human Cloning,” or “Practices of Citizenship: Ancient and Modern.”

The report differs sharply from a proposal floated last year, which would have resembled what many schools do and required students to take a certain number of classes in particular areas, such as science. But the proposal did not lay out a strong vision for what an education should be. It died partly because it was unpopular, but also because it became entangled in the controversy over the leadership of former president Lawrence H. Summers ’75. The latest proposal, however, does echo some of Summers’s goals for improving the curriculum.

Students interviewed Wednesday all sharply criticized the Core. Several said they found little rationale for the courses offered, many of which are widely considered easy and not to be taken seriously.

“At least [the proposal] is attempting to give us a range of what seems important, so we won’t just take Alexander [the Great], Dinosaurs, Cosmic Connections, and Magic of Numbers,” said junior Olivia Brown, referring to well-known Core courses.

But senior Jenny Tsai said the proposal sounds too fleeting, betraying an anxiety about the contemporary world. “It seems to be about fears about the Middle East and the need to learn science so we can create better weapons to maintain American supremacy,” said Tsai, a social studies major.

Menand, however, said being up to date was the point.

“No general education should be timeless,” he said. “There’s no question it’s a response to the world we live in now.”