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Harvard Educational Reform

October 6th, 2006 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Harvard is rethinking their core curriculum for undergraduates. From the article:

On Wednesday, the university released a new plan for undergraduate education that would designate certain subjects as ones that must be studied. As a result, every Harvard undergraduate would have to take a course on the United States and a course dealing with religion, among others. Few top colleges and universities have such requirements. But students would be able to pick within those broad topics, with the idea that many courses would meet the requirements.

How is this different from before?  Rather than simply offering a broad slate of topics, Harvard is specifying what the students have to learn about.  "History" won't cut it--they have to learn about American history, at least from one perspective. Carol Geary Schneider approves:

Schneider of the Association of American Colleges and Universities said she thought the report might have a positive impact. “I think that what this is doing is restoring the purpose of general education requirements, which is to connect learning with real world citizenship.”

She said it made a lot of sense for Harvard to say that students need to study the United States, and the world, and science, and religion, etc., rather than using broad distribution requirements. “Let’s think about what’s going on in American high schools. Students have one year of American history or maybe two, but they may never study the United States again,” she said. Harvard’s proposal would mean that they would study the United States again, and at a deeper level than they could in high school.

Two thoughts:  1)  It is fascinating to see Harvard struggle so much to cater to student demand for cafeteria learning, while trying to hold on to a common body of knowledge that is considered essential for an education.  In many ways, it makes me think that education is far too consumer-oriented.  2)  The above quote indicates that the purpose of education is to promote "citizenship."  The article also indicates that "citizenship" is the first, though not the only, aim listed by the document:

The report goes on to say that general education “prepares students to be citizens of a democracy within a global society” and also teaches students to “understand themselves as product of — and participants in — traditions of art, ideas and values.” General education should also encourage students to “adapt to change” and to have a sense of ethics, the report says.

I have to wonder whether "ethics" is merely an end for "citizenship."  While citizenship is important, it seems it is a secondary aim of education, with ethics and knowledge the chief.  Good citizenship comes out of being a good person, not the other way around.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.