Ethics & Public Policy Center

Less Than Meets the Eye: Harvard’s Core Reform

Published in National Review Online on October 5, 2006

Harvard has released a plan to reform its core curriculum..

From what I’ve read of it so far, I am not impressed. The big news is that the plan will require students to take courses about the United States and also about religion. This shift toward specific subject areas, and the inclusion of religion as a topic of importance, may sound like steps in the right direction, but (speaking of religion) the devil is in the details. This so-called core still contains far too much choice and specialization. You can fulfill your American studies requirement, for example, with a course called, “Health Care in the United States: A Comparative Perspective.” This bears little resemblance to any proper notion of a core. It’s more like rotating the dishes at your smorgasbord than adopting a prix fixe menu.

I very much like the idea of a common core course or courses, taught to everyone at a given school. But I don’t mean to suggest that this is the only sort of core reform I’d approve of. Harvard could have carefully designed two or three broadly based courses in each of its required subject areas, and this would still have made for meaningful reform (while also allowing for plenty of choice). But to keep the smorgasbord approach, while simply shifting to topic areas that sound more relevant and “conservative” strikes me as window-dressing.

Go to any bookstore right now and you will see a raft of books by liberals grousing about religion. Harvard’s core courses on religion will not be quite that bad. But religious conservatives ought not to be fooled by the inclusion of religion as a required subject into thinking that the secular university is changing in a way that will please them. Not that I would ask or expect a core course to teach religion in the sense of imparting dogma. I’m simply noting that this change sounds like more of a shift than it is.

You will never get a true core program without forcing the faculty to teach the kind of broad survey courses that they generally hope to avoid (or without hiring faculty who specifically do wish to teach in a core). Professors generally want to design courses that help them in their specialized research (say, on American health care). Smart and ambitious faculty members ought to recognize that going back to the fundamentals will actually advance their ability to do important work, and will help them address a wider audience as well. In any case, education in the fundamentals is not the sort of reform Harvard is offering, and we should not be fooled by the hype.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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