Curricular Transformation

Harvard must not rest on the laurels of its professors in its effort at pedagogical renewal

No current undergraduate was yet born when a curricular review was last conducted. Some of us will not be alive when the next one begins. Not only will the review shape the education of Harvard students for generations to come, but the pedagogical principles upon which the new curriculum rests will hopefully form the ideological foundation for American higher education in the 21st century.

The true potential of this curricular review can only be fulfilled through a fundamental rethinking of undergraduate education—small tweaks will have little effect and will quickly be forgotten. It is encouraging that the review structure—four advisory committees studying concentrations, general education, pedagogy and academic experience—ensures that almost no aspect of the curriculum will go unexamined. The real challenge will be in coordinating the work of the various committees, ensuring that they all work towards common pedagogical goals. Unlike previous reviews, the overarching vision will not be dictated from above. We applaud this democratization, but also caution against potential conflict.

This renewed curriculum should not simply reflect the changes in the structure of knowledge in the past 25 years since the last review, but must attempt to establish a new standard.

Interdisciplinary work—both research and regular coursework—must be encouraged, both in the fields where it already predominates, such as the sciences, and in those where the limitations of the traditional disciplinary boundaries have yet to be acknowledged.

This cannot be accomplished by diminishing the number and focus of existing concentrations—creating a small group of large concentrations—which would only lead to the spread of poor advising and lack of academic community endemic to the three currently bloated concentrations: economics, government and biochemical sciences. Instead, a flexible system should be set up where students are not only able to coherently combine various distinct fields of study, but are actively encouraged to do so. Students must be able to position themselves at the intersection of fields—the current system of joint-concentrations is pedagogically stifling. But an institutional structure should also be created to accommodate those whose academic interests lie in two unrelated disciplines. The often-arbitrary walls between concentrations need not be so high.


Yet the committees must not only examine the interaction between concentrations, but also the inner workings of the concentrations themselves. The massive economics, government and biochemical sciences are the most problematic. Not only do students get lost, but faculty find it easier to dodge their advising, administrative and teaching responsibilities. What is more, often these umbrella concentrations serve merely as clearing houses for widely different academic fields. In the government faculty, for instance, political scientists have been estranged from political theorists for decades, and American civics professors rarely exchange words with those teaching international relations. Whether it comes from further subdivision of large concentrations or more emphasis on departmental infrastructure, professors need to want to engage more with all undergraduates.

General education suffers from a similar sickness. Teaching is poor, administration is Byzantine and faculty all too often ignore their students. To begin with, as this page has argued for many years, the Core must go. It has never been capable of achieving its original goal of teaching “approaches to knowledge.” It instead herds students into watered-down, overpopulated classes in which they learn little.

The new general education requirement must also reflect the vast expansion of learning in the past three decades. No longer is it feasible to attempt to mandate a finite amount of knowledge that all students must be exposed to before they may enter the Pantheon of the educated. However, the new general education requirement must also not indulge in the relativism of the current Core. A course on “Viking and Nordic Heroic Tradition” can no longer masquerade as an alternative to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Apart from examining course requirements—in a sense the most straightforward aspect of a curricular review—the committees for pedagogy and academic experience must examine issues that will require more fundamental changes to the Harvard culture. Advising is particularly problematic. The solution will not simply involve changing the locus of the adviser (from the House to the concentration, for instance), and certainly nothing will improve if a greater number of adviser meetings are mandated with the current crop of often unmotivated, unknowledgeable and uninspiring graduate students. A concerted effort must be made to encourage the entire Harvard Faculty to share in what should not be considered a burden, but an opportunity to direct and focus the leaders of the future.

The reliance on unqualified student teaching fellows (TFs) in many large lecture courses must also be called into question. In many situations, undergraduates are now taught and assessed by ill-prepared instructors. This problem is especially acute in the humanities and social sciences, where advanced undergraduates will often find themselves being graded by a professional school student who is clearly less familiar with the material and the academic process than they are. A long-term solution must involve a cultural shift in the importance of undergraduates, as professors must take a more active role in teaching and assessing the work of their students.

A common lament heard resounding through Massachusetts Hall, is that all these problems would simply disappear if students paid as much attention to their academics as they did to their extracurricular activities. Indeed, it is all too common for students to report that extracurriculars are the most valuable aspect of their Harvard experience, and be content with what is now a gentleman’s B+ average. But the curricular review is not simply about shifting around the burden of lackluster courses. It must create a framework in which more stimulating interaction and bold thinking is fostered. The review has the potential to re-invigorate undergraduate academic engagement, and rekindle an academic community that will be able to compete with the draw of extracurriculars.

Harvard academics are some of the best in the world, but we must not shy away from attempting to achieve excellence. The curricular review provides us with the chance to both make history and make the future. But the success of any new curriculum will not primarily be judged by the convenience of the new requirements, but by the culture it creates. Faculty must pave the way for the return of undergraduates to the heart of the University, and students must be ready to embark on this journey.