Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Winds of change at Harvard

Harvard university is revisiting its undergrad curriculum. This is happening after three decades! Shows just how slow the best of universities can be in ushering in change.

FT reports (March 14):
Harvard, the richest, oldest, and arguably most influential university in America, is on the verge of overhauling its curriculum for the first time in three decades – and in doing so, helping redefine what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century.

A recent report by a panel of professors tasked with revamping the school’s general education programme calls for courses designed to help prepare students to contribute to civic life, respond to change in society, and grasp the ethical implications of their actions. Because everything that happens at Harvard sends ripples throughout the academic world, university officials throughout the US are watching the report closely. “Our aim was to help students try to draw connections between what they are learning in the classroom and their 21st-century lives,” said Alison Simmons, co-chair of the task force and a professor of philosophy.

“We’re not trying to say that an educated man or woman needs to know this, that and the other.

“What we’re saying is that an educated person should have a certain set of capacities: inter­pretive capacities, problem-solving capacities, reflective capacities and critical capacities to help them through the world,” she said. Harvard’s current core curriculum, which was designed in the 1970s, has been faulted for allowing professors to teach whatever narrow and obscure subjects interest them and for placing too little emphasis on the quality of undergraduates’ academic experience.

The new curriculum design would be any educator's dream:

Under the new curriculum, each student would be required to take one course in each of eight categories. These include: science of living systems; science of the physical universe; societies of the world, which will cover ethnic identity, statehood and government; empirical reasoning, which will include courses on evaluating data; and ethical reasoning, which will cover philosophy, political theory and religion.

The three other areas are: aesthetic and interpretive understanding, which focuses on cultural expression, such as literature, art and music; culture and belief, which would place those works in context; and the US in the world, which is meant to give students a “nuanced understanding of American society”.

The report also promotes an initiative in “activity-based learning” that would link academic work with students’ Harvard-sponsored extra-curricular activities, such as writing for the student newspaper or performing in a dance troupe, as well as pursuits outside the university, such as volunteering for a political camp­aign or taking a placement as an intern at a company

You can see the committee's thinking. Identify the skills needed. Then, identify the courses that would provide the skills.

Biology and physics/chemistry would be part of any existing curriculum. Ethics and philosophy would not be uncommon, as also literature, art and music and data evaluation.

What is new, as I see it, are the elements that help the young student relate to the world at large and understand the sources of conflict in the modern world: ethinic identity and statehood; culture and belief; and the US and the world, especially important because Americans are amongst the most insular people in the world today.

In a word, the revamped curriculum is all about helping students relate to globalisation. That is as it should be. "Internationalisation" of programmes is something of a buzzword today but, like many buzzords, it is in danger of being trivialised.

Too many institutions, especially business schools, think "internationalisation" has to do with students visiting foreign lands or having foreign students come over- "exchange programmes" are the flavour of the day. There is, of course, a place for travel but there is more to "internationalisation" of programmes than globe-trotting. After all, tour operators can do a decent job of travel, we don't need universities to do that.

No, "internationalisation" must be primarily about changing the curriculum to reflect changes in the world at large, it must be about bringing in the international dimension to learning.We need to develop citizens who have basic skills and knowledge and who can also intelligently relate to what is going on in the world. That is what Harvard is attempting with its new curriculum.

There's just a little footnote I would like to add. Larry Summers, the distinguished economist and former US treasury secretary who was President of Harvard, tried his damndest to ring in changes at Harvard. One of his main concerns was the undergrad curriculum. He was defeated by a faculty body that was resistant to change and that was also resistant to anybody telling them they needed to improve. It must be gratifying for Summers to see that faculty have had to respond, after all, to the clamour for change, even if somewhat belatedly.

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