Three representatives of Ivy League colleges found common themes in their seemingly antagonistic models of liberal arts educations in last night’s panel on curricular review.
The speakers also jumped at the opportunity to mock Harvard’s approach to undergraduate education. And they said they feel the current curricular review will do little to change the essence of a Harvard education.
Entitled “Curricular Options and Opportunities: Views from Outside Cambridge,” the panel was presided over by Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 and featured Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead, Dean of the College at Brown University Paul Armstrong ’71 and Columbia Jewish History Professor Michael F. Stanislawski ’73.
Each speaker was quick to point out the strengths of his school’s curriculum, but noted the legitimacy of other possible models for a liberal arts education.
“Let’s face it, each school is convinced that their way is the best way,” Brodhead said. “But, if any one system was the best, we would all adopt it.”
He said the ultimate test of the vitality of a curriculum was its ability to engage students.
“The danger is that every requirement can be met merely as a requirement,” Brodhead said. “The most essential component of an education is a role in shaping it—you can’t take it out of students’ hands.”
Brodhead acknowledged the mentality behind this statement echoed Brown’s educational philosophy. Brown is the Ivy League school known for its unique “open curriculum” in which there are no general education requirements besides proficiency in a foreign language.
Addressing Brown’s “liberal curriculum,” Armstrong said it is based on the principle that students learn best when they help shape their own education.
“It is about relaying different ways of thinking instead of impacting a common tradition of books or knowledge,” he said. “Our curriculum is encouraged and rewarded by student initiative.”Even Stanislawski said the goals of Columbia’s core—which by requiring classes on Contemporarily Civilization is the most stringent general education program in the Ivy League—was designed to engage students in an ongoing dialogue about their education.
“It is not about imposing a canon, but rather about [allowing] students to engage in contemporary issues on the basis of firsthand knowledge,” he said.
Brodhead further emphasized students’ initiative when he said Yale’s curricular review, now a year and a half old, has exposed the tendency of curricular models to be “benevolent dictators.”
He said any attempt to find a common curriculum for a liberal arts education is difficult in major research universities where faculty are rewarded for increasing specialization.
“Universities have a plurality of institutional agendas...curriculum proliferate where understanding disintegrates,” Brodhead said.
The handful of students present last night said that Harvard could learn a lesson from the speakers’ emphasis on students shaping their own educations.