GETTING AT THE CORE: Curricular Reform at Harvard by Phyllis Keller

GETTING AT THE CORE: Curricular Reform at Harvard

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Harvard's 1977 announcement that it was instituting a ""core curriculum"" was widely interpreted as the harbinger of a national return to structured education and required courses; what Keller demonstrates, close up (she was then Associate Dean of Faculty and a member of the curriculum's task force), is that Harvard has a long history of tension between student freedom and curricular reform--and that years of internal politick-king preceded adoption of the new program. On becoming president of outmoded, secondary-school-ish Harvard in 1869, Charles William Eliot set out to develop a curriculum that ""would cultivate the individual talents of its students and serve the needs of a dynamic society."" The resulting elective system gave the necessary flexibility but presupposed carefully selected students entering with trained minds. When some students failed to measure up, the stage was set for President Abbott Lawrence Lowell to institute new reforms in the early 1900s, including distribution requirements and a tutorial system. Unlike Chicago or Columbia, however, Harvard never settled on a clearly defined purpose or program. In the climate of the 1960s, its General Education Program expanded to include courses like The Scandinavian Cinema and The Health Care Crisis. (""Lost was the conviction that there was a common intellectual culture. . . ."") By the mid-'70s, there was a ""growing disposition to restore some degree of purpose and coherence""; but by no means a consensus. President Derek Bok and his Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Henry Rosofsky, moved cautiously to build faculty support--from formation of the task force (May 1975) to debate over its report (January 1977) to adoption of the final plan (May 1977). It called for five major areas of study, reflecting ""certain broad, basic modes of understanding: critical, historical, analytical, scientific, and linguistic""; courses were to so serve. Uproar ensued. Harvard students saw the core curriculum in terms of ""a class struggle between student masses and the faculty-administration elite."" Outside: ""It was too elitist and insufficiently elitist; it was back to basics and a delicatessen. . . ."" Keller, however, does not deal with these criticisms except to say--centrally--that the plan represented a ""collective responsibility"" of the faculty (remarkable in itself) to meet the needs of a socially diverse student body. As to whether it does, the verdict is still out. Important as a case study of how Harvard, exemplary or not, analyzed the issues at stake in curricular reform--issues which might, however, have been raised in bolder relief.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press