Revolutionize the Curriculum

The Curricular Review is a rare opportunity to completely revamp education at Harvard

Today, Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 will be hosting the first of two Curricular Review Symposia. This marks the beginning of the first full-fledged self-examination of Harvard’s curriculum in 30 years—a monumental opportunity for members of the Unversity’s faculty, administration and students to change the face of the undergraduate educational experience for years to come.

The history of previous curricular reforms establishes a strong precedent of true innovation. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, broke new ground instituting the elective system. As World War II came to an end, President James B. Conant ’14 oversaw the production of Education in a Free Society, the famous “Red Book” which formed the intellectual underpinnings of the modern American liberal arts curriculum. In the most recent curricular review, Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky renewed the focus on undergraduate education by exposing students to some of Harvard’s most renowned senior faculty through the Core program.

But this review cannot simply react to the past; it must forge the education of the future. Harvard must produce a curriculum that will be able to capitalize upon the opportunities, as well as cope with the new challenges, of the dawn of the 21st century. One of the most prominent challenges for the new curriculum, posed by University President Lawrence H. Summers in his installation speech, is how to integrate technology and science education into a liberal arts program.

The options presented at tonight’s symposion are the first steps toward looking at the Harvard undergraduate curriculum in a truly imaginative, original way. That includes acknowledging and addressing the University’s almost unquestioned deficiencies.

Most notoriously, the Core has become increasingly incapable of achieving its fundamental goal—learning about different “approaches to knowledge.” By forcing students into watered-down, overpopulated lecture classes, the Core assumes that students are incapable of learning those same “approaches” in more rigorous departmental classes. It eliminates the opportunity for true intellectual exploration by strong-arming students into taking basic courses in arbitrary areas. The Core’s elimination would be addition by subtraction.


To facilitate truly revolutionary change, the task forces should examine how Harvard ought to pursue its educational goals in three broad areas of study: natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. These task forces must take a holistic approach, looking both at the critical bodies of knowledge to be imparted and the methods used to to teach them. The committees should focus on the path that students take in pursuing these fields, from enrollment to graduation and beyond. It is imperative that the underlying justifications for such conventions as the concentration system, the tutorial program, Expository Writing, and the efficacy of sections as teaching tools be rigorously questioned.

Such progressive thinking can only be fostered if the task forces are carefully composed of students, faculty, administrators and recent alumni. It is essential that each individual bring a different perspective to the discussion. The students will be invaluable; they are the only ones with first-hand understanding of the current system. There should be sophomores, juniors and seniors on every committee to ensure continuity throughout the process and maintain institutional memory. But students have not yet put Harvard’s education to work in the outside world. For such a perspective, recent alumni will be essential—because of their distance, as well as the experience they have gained beyond Cambridge. It is important, however, that the alumni chosen are not simply selected according to their rating from the development office. And of course, faculty will present the necessary teacher’s perspective—but in addition to professors who often hold positions on these types of committees, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby should include those who have not been as involved with the administration.

Just as the underlying premise of a liberal arts education is that advances in one area enhance the understanding of another, so should the work of each individual task force contribute to a rethinking of the entire undergraduate experience. It is only by fashioning the work of these various task forces into an overarching, coherent plan that this curricular review can improve the experience of students at Harvard. This review is an enormous undertaking, but with an uninhibited diagnosis of the curriculum’s past failings and a renewed dedication to revolutionary improvements, Harvard can once again be on the cutting edge of undergraduate education.