Posted: January 27, 2005
Editor's Note: A version of this article appeared in the collection, Essays on General Education in Harvard College, published by Harvard's Office of the Curricular Review. It was commissioned by William C. Kirby, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who asked colleagues to offer their vision of a liberal arts education at the start of the 21st century. The essays are part of a major review of Harvard's undergraduate curriculum.
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ur curriculum is what we, the faculty, choose to put before our students. It is what we collectively choose. Individually, we choose courses to teach that arise from our research and that we expect will forward it, and also courses that we think students want or ought to have in the subfields for which we take responsibility. These individual courses reflect a sense of duty; they are not simply personal whims or eccentricities or ways to shine. They are meant to be contributions to the whole and they are thought out as such. But they are not a curriculum resulting from a common deliberation as to what students ought to learn or have available to learn. We are now engaged in a common deliberation for the purpose of bringing our individual choices together so that they make sense to us as a faculty and not only to each of us as individual professors.
To see where we are now, let's look at the two curricular reviews we have had not quite within living memory—one for general education in 1945 and another for the core program prior to 1978, when the core was instituted. General education was presented in a book, the once-famous Red Book—General Education in a Free Society—that should still impress readers in our time. The Red Book has an introduction by President James Bryant Conant, who appointed the committee of stalwarts—administrators and professors—who put together the curriculum and wrote the report initiating and explaining "general education." With the strong leadership of the president, the report was designed for cohesion and achieved it. It was designed ambitiously not only for Harvard but also for "a free society" in which, of course, Harvard would be a leader not only of private higher education but of all education, public and private, from primary schools (discussed in the report) to graduate education. Throughout, the authors made reference to the requirements and hopes of American democracy.
General Education and the Red Book
What was "general education"? it was the same as "liberal education," and it referred above all to what should be common in our education. The advance of science, it was seen, came through specialization, which resulted in more specialization; the danger was that the modern university's specialties would bring it to disregard what was and needed to be common to learning. Because specialized learning is so abstruse, the university could no longer communicate with fellow citizens. Perhaps more embarrassing, members of the faculty could not understand one another, and the university couldn't communicate with itself.
The Red Book did not assume that general education was easy to achieve. It identified problems in education as such, some of them intensified in a democracy: how to combine the citizen and the whole man; how to serve both the gifted (traced to Thomas Jefferson's insistence on promoting the talented) and the average (championed by Andrew Jackson); how to reconcile the practice of free inquiry with the need for "firm belief" by both the gifted and the average; and the related difficulty of seeking new insights while preserving tradition. It also squarely faced the difference between science, or natural science, on the one hand, and the social sciences and the humanities, on the other—a general problem that I think was the greatest concern of President Conant and his committee.
Science, said the Red Book, is progressive and exact. As progressive, science replaces earlier findings thought to be knowledge with current findings. From the strict standpoint of science, it makes no sense to study the history of science. If Galileo were to return to the land of the living, he would accept the changes in his findings as improvements. His acceptance and the agreement in the scientific community characteristic of modern science are a consequence of the exactness of modern science, which in the best case leaves no room for doubt. Social sciences and the humanities, on the other hand, are neither progressive nor exact. "Goethe does not render Sophocles obsolete, nor does Descartes supersede Plato." No doubt many lesser figures of the past are lost in oblivion; and there could easily be agreement that these four are great thinkers worth studying. But they are worth studying because these four differ among themselves and offer views still necessary to consider.
Science and Postmodernism
President Conant was a scientist who was also involved with politics as head of the Manhattan Project, which produced the atom bomb. He was particularly concerned with the difficulty of conveying the abstruse precision of science to non-scientists, a problem we have not yet solved today. The abstruseness of science—its distance from common sense—could not be dismissed by a non-scientist because science, together with all its many benefits, had made a bomb that was impossible to ignore. It happened that as a freshman in 1949 I took a course given by President Conant (Natural Sciences 4) intended to address this difficulty and to overcome the distance between scientific and non-scientific understanding. This course aimed to generalize the methods of scientific hypothesizing and thus make available the essence of science while freeing science from the abstruseness of particular sciences. It was not quite the history of science, nor was it the philosophy of science; it was something like the common practice of science. The idea was to look at science apart from its particular results, such as the difference between a gene and a genome, because these results are only temporary and do not get to the essence of science as an enterprise.
What happened in this course illustrates the fate of general education in the Harvard faculty. The course was meant to bridge the gap between science and non-science, thus making our Harvard curriculum successfully "general." Instead, the reverse occurred and the gap became more pronounced. One of the teachers in Natural Sciences 4 was Thomas Kuhn, who later wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book that became famous, much more famous than the now-forgotten Red Book. He argued that science consisted of dominant theories or "paradigms" that were not so much refuted as replaced by new paradigms. Scientists orient themselves by the "normal science" of their time, and scientific agreement is produced by common, induced belief more than by acceptance of the greater exactness in new findings. Science therefore has "progressed"—we now have to use quotation marks—more by the political means of domination than by the unfolding discovery of truth.
So much for the success of a curriculum. The attempt of a scientist to explain himself to non-scientists was taken over by one of the latter and made into the landmark postmodern criticism of science. Of course, there were other sources of postmodernism and other reasons for the gradual decay of general education in practice and belief. Still, Kuhn himself became one of his paradigms, though among non-scientists. I don't know that he had any effect on scientists. The result was to reduce the claim to specialness from science. Instead of a fundamental heterogeneity between science and non-science, creating the main problem for American higher education, there was a diversity of fields in which no such fundamental heterogeneity could be discerned. The only problem was that non-science students had much more trouble with science—finding its exactness too exacting—than science students had with non-science.
The Core Curriculum and Choice
Hence the core curriculum. I have dwelt on general education because the core program is best understood as a privative defined by what it lacks more than by any positive idea of its own. Its only positive idea was the requirement for moral reasoning, promoted by President Derek Bok as a counter to the unreasoned moral outrage of the 1960s that we had all experienced. There was not much confidence, however, that more reasoning would make you more moral; the hope, I believe, was that reasoning might make you more civil, or at least more deliberate, more cautious—hence less self-righteous? No, that would be hoping too much.
The core curriculum never defined a core. Generated from the faculty rather than promoted, still less imposed, from above, it produced a vague consensus of the most powerful departments. Core areas were carefully not named for departments but they were close enough to departments to gain their consent. The core has been a professors' curriculum based on the premise that what professors want to teach is the same as what students need to know, and which society needs them to know. In fact, the core has been better than that, better than its lack of theory might have portended. The prestige of teaching in the core—rather than languishing in the periphery!—has been an attraction for the more ambitious professors, and the need for getting the consent of a core committee has kept them from simply teaching their pet ideas, as tended to happen in the later stages of general education. But in too many cases the idea of not teaching something necessary to know has imposed itself. Some angle must be found that will look interesting to students not mainly interested in the subject-matter of the course. Thus the professors' curriculum tended to become a curriculum designed to appeal to students. After a while that appeal began to fade, and the students who flocked to core courses in huge numbers began to hold them in disdain.
The premise of the core, as I said, is choice. Since two parties are involved, faculty and students, there must be a coincidence between their two choices; and that is what the core supplied. "Approaches" to knowledge rather than knowledge itself were featured because these were the choices faculty had made for their careers and because students should not object to having their choices guided and constrained by the fields of their teachers. Anyway, "approaches" were not quite the same as departments, and there was plenty of choice for courses within each approach. It is easy to fall into the habit of speaking of "approaches" without completing the phrase to say what they are approaching, namely, knowledge. Despite the fact that "approach" means nothing without specifying the substance being approached, it was convenient not to mention the substantive knowledge aimed at or attained in each approach. It was a way to present, i.e., disguise, the abandonment by the core program of the goal that general education had set for itself of acquiring the most fundamental knowledge or understanding the most fundamental problems. The problem of reconciling science and non-science that I believe was crucial for general education disappeared into a flux of the diverse approaches, and neither science nor non-science was required to defend itself against the other. The approaches became sovereign perspectives, each declared valid in 1978, none of them having to explain itself, but charged only with the lesser task of illustrating itself in some way that will be found interesting by students.
It is not only in the curriculum that Harvard lives by a regime of choice. The same is true of food and sex for the undergraduates. Choice's advantage is that it is not imposed, or apparently not imposed; and students think better of the courses they take for having chosen them for themselves. You will be slow to diss the professor when doing so compels you to admit you were a fool for taking the course. This is psychology. But there is also a drawback to choice in its seeming promise that you will be satisfied. Lots of choice of food in the cafeteria easily makes students more choosy rather than more satisfied. Give out condoms and you imply, don't you, that there will be generous opportunity to put them to use? It's the same with courses. Despite the almost unbelievably large number of courses offered, finding that fourth course every semester gets harder and harder for students as they move towards graduation. Nothing is quite right for me; so I flock to courses that everyone else seems to like. This is the invisible authority of democratic opinion that leads to frustration and grumbling and fosters the sense of being put upon, notwithstanding that array of choice.
Student Wants and Needs
We are now, at last, up to the present. it must be acknowledged, for a start, that we are not going to do away with choice. We faculty want it, and so do our students. But from what I hear, students after the experience of the core would like to have more substance in their education. Let us give it more substance—but not because students are demanding more substance. To provide substance we must see to it that our curriculum does not become an agency merely to facilitate students' choices. We must try to influence and form their choices. Let us declare then that we think, on our own, that there is a difference between an educated person and one who is merely socialized.
Education is a choice divided into two aspects: what students want and what students should have. These are two different things, but neither can exclude the other. What students want should not be accepted without revision, nor on the other hand should it be denied them merely because they want it. What they should have needs to be connected to what they want even though the two will never coincide. What students want for their education comes spontaneously from them; what students should have has to be imposed or at least offered insistently against the flow of their desires. What students want spontaneously at this time is going to be influenced by two forces that need to be resisted by the faculty.
Partisanship is one. Most of our students arrive with, or soon acquire, liberal political inclinations, and these need to be countered by experience with arguments from the other side and also by courses that teach students detachment, from their own or even from any political inclination. The latter would be courses with depth, requiring thought that goes beyond the present and avoids a policy focus; and depth can be comparative, theoretical, or historical.
The second is risk-avoidance for the sake of a future career or to enhance the prospect of getting admitted to the top graduate and professional schools. There is a pressing need to make our curriculum more demanding, and this should be a major goal of our curriculum review. Students should be asked to give more time to their courses and less time to extra-curricular activities. Just as students seem to be looking for more substance in the curriculum, so too they sense that Harvard has become too easy. Here, quoted at length, is the judgment of a member of the class of 2002, Ross Gregory Douthat, in a forthcoming book about his Harvard education:
It was hard work to get into Harvard, and then it was hard work competing for offices and honors with thousands of brilliant and driven young people, hard work keeping your head in the competitive world of extracurriculars, hard work keeping your soul in the swirling social world, hard work fighting for law-school slots and I-banking jobs as college wound to a close...yes, it was heavy sledding all around.
But the academics—no, the academics were the easy part.
This situation we need to address, and we should look for a combination of inducements and requirements that makes Harvard more demanding of its students. It goes without saying, as a necessary accompaniment to a more demanding curriculum, that we should put an end to the scandal of grade inflation at the nation's number one university. And not by declaring our 51% A's and A-'s to be fine and dandy.
Now I have some more particular recommendations inspired by these reflections on recent history.
More Science. Here is a problem. Science is always on the move, as I said above, replacing its old discoveries with new findings. Does it make sense to teach the present results of science when they may be obsolete soon after the student graduates? But if it does not, is there some way to capture the essence of science and teach that? Or is the so-called essence of science not really science but the history or philosophy of science and real science is the practice of scientists? Real science requires more mathematics than most non-scientists have or desire. Should the necessary mathematics be crammed down their throats? What can one say of science to those outside it—necessarily a non-mathematical communication?
I don't have a solution. But as a non-scientist I do think that part of our preferred or required curriculum should feature the relationship of science to non-science. There should be a course in the history and/or philosophy of science, or else a science course, that treats the relationship of science to common sense, and connected to this, the relationship of science to religion. The advance of science, typified by stem cell research and cloning that approach or enter into the chambers of human dignity, is going to be an ever more pressing issue (as we saw in the 2004 election campaign).
Internationalism. We can be sure that America's responsible role in the world or America's imperialist temptation—take your choice—will be of spontaneous interest to our students and to us. This material is familiar to us in the clusters of questions associated with multiculturalism and globalization. But now we face Islamic radicalism, which casts doubt on the ready reception or absorption of foreign nations and cultures into our country, a fortiori into our understanding of the world. In theory we say the world is diverse, in practice we act as if we believe it to be homogeneous. Is there such a thing as an enemy, a real Other that we cannot and ought not tolerate?
Internationalism in some form is something students want to study, but the foreign languages they need may not be universally or immediately attractive. We should continue and strengthen our requirements in foreign languages.
America. The proposed emphasis on international relations falls into the category of things students spontaneously want. We also need to make sure that they understand their own country. Far too little is taught about America at Harvard. The Government department has too few courses on America; little on the Supreme Court, for example, and less on American foreign policy. The History department has no course on the American Revolution or on the American Founding. Courses in American history and politics should be part of the recommended or required part of the curriculum.
Religion. Religion is not sufficiently taught to undergraduates and should not only be present but central in our curriculum. I have mentioned the relationships between religion and science and between religion and internationalism. These are aspects of the relationship between reason and revelation, a fundamental question hardly raised in our complacently secular education. This could be addressed in a course on the history of philosophy, or another on the history of political philosophy, or one on the history of religion or of Christianity.
The Military. Here is another subject we do not teach enough. In fact it is hardly taught at all, except for a couple of courses in Government. The military is set aside—not even criticized—in the complacently pacifist education we deliver to our students. There ought to be a Harvard College course in the military, in military history, or in the relationship of the military to society, economics, politics. Yale has a course on Grand Strategy that has been praised.
In considering topics of a more substantive curriculum, especially religion and the military, I am not assuming that the faculty can remain as it is. No, there need to be more professors in religion and in the military. We should not be taking the present composition of the faculty for granted, and then looking for what it can do or wants to do. That was the mistake of the Core; it took for granted the diverse approaches the bigger departments could agree on and called it an education. When in the construction of the Core the Department of History found it was left out, it banged noisily on the door and was let in. Obviously, we cannot make a curriculum for ourselves that the faculty does not want to teach, but equally, we need to consider whether we have let things drift so that matters of the greatest importance are slighted.
Beautiful Things. A vulgar person is one who has no experience with beautiful things. We should not be graduating vulgar persons. We should have Harvard College courses on the history of fine arts and the history of music. Our students should be able to glance at Littauer and say to themselves, "Hmm. Six Roman Ionic columns." If they cannot love Mozart, they should know what he sounds like and what he was trying to do.
History of Science. There should be a Harvard College course in the History of Science, especially one that considers the difference between pre-modern and modern science. The period of the founding of a science is of special interest because it is there, before its principles are taken for granted, that the science is revealed in its true light as a bold and polemical reinterpretation of the meaning of nature. It's true as I said above that a scientist as such does not care about the history of his subject, but from a broader viewpoint that includes the impact of science and the nature of science as a human enterprise, its history is essential. Something similar could be said for the history of mathematics. I would also like to mention that the Economics department has been remiss in not teaching the history of economics—and for quite some time, perhaps even since the death of Joseph Schumpeter.
Modernity. Here is a fundamental topic on which there should be several Harvard College courses. Modernity might be quickly defined as the notion of rational control by humans of human life rather than piously or philosophically accepting the rule of God or nature. It is a creation of the West, and it has proved so powerful that all other cultures have had to accept it or adjust to it or, like the Islamic radicals, try to oppose it. Nobody can simply dismiss it from consideration. And yet modernity is not happy with itself, as we see in many movements today on the Left and the Right. So nobody can simply accept it, either, as a non-controversial good. Modernity is the fundamental condition of our life today, and our students need to be made aware of its promise and its troubles.
Western Civilization. Western Civ needs to be taught, if only for the power it has shown in dominating the world. But to avoid the objection that it is too self-centered a topic, it could be treated from the angle of modernity as above or of greatness as below. A course that begins with Homer and ends somewhere in the vicinity of Nietzsche, with selected stops between, still makes lots of sense. Such a course can find room for our concerns for minorities and women without being dominated by those concerns (I believe Homer has something to say about both of them).
Moral reasoning. Despite my irreverence above, moral reasoning is the best part of the Core and we should retain it as a requirement. It should be kept as a way to ensure that great books are read, for most of the Moral Reasoning courses have had to include Aristotle and Kant and a few others of their class. Our students still suffer from superficial, unreasoning moralism, and President Bok was right to think a course in Moral Reasoning would be beneficial
Better Writing. I do not say "creative writing," because that is rare. What we can do is to teach good writing from various examples of the best writing. Students should learn to analyze style and to look for the writer's intent behind the style chosen. What writing is appropriate to what occasion? Unfortunately, a budding profession has appeared of freshman English instructors. They care little for style and less for substance, and their exemplary writers come almost entirely from the present. They don't know or teach grammar or spelling. What we need for the job is a collection of pedants and taskmasters.
With better writing goes, like, better speaking. Harvard should teach rhetoric, and in course of doing so, sponsor more formal debate than we hear these days. How does one make a persuasive speech?
Greatness. President Lawrence Summers has used this word to describe one goal of curriculum review. We must not be afraid to make judgments of greatness in our teaching, explicit or not, and we should show students how to recognize it in its diversity. Relativism is not a crazy position to hold if it means that we lack proof of the major conflicting principles guiding our lives, but it is debilitating if it induces us to level all principles, equating petty and great, and thus dismiss greatness from our view. I believe in the great books because I think that all human thoughts derive from these few masters, i maestri di color che sanno. But the derivations are interesting too, more relevant and urgent, and we don't want to become another great books college.
These are my thoughts. They are, to return to my beginning, an individual contribution to a collective deliberation, thus limited by my experience and no doubt in other ways too. I have dwelt on the justification of a curriculum and have perhaps in this brief essay given out too much high talk on first principles. But I was taken with the Red Book when I reread it and contrasted its depth and comprehensiveness with the lack of those qualities in the 1970s discussion (as I remembered it) preceding institution of the Core. In the past two years as well, I have not heard much talk of "general education in a free society." We should have, and we should convey, a sense of the direction in which we want to go.