Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Harvard’s Parochialism

Harvard University has a new president, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, and soon she will be forced to consider the matter of curricular reform. It will not be easy. The modern faculty prefers its administrators to stick to fund-raising and honorific functions, and to keep clear of the classroom. In Harvard’s case, however, reform is long overdue. In the early 1970′s, its curriculum was reconfigured to downplay “bodies of knowledge” in favor of “approaches to knowledge”—in other words, to subordinate content to methodology. Traditional course requirements in Western civilization or foreign languages were shelved in favor of courses that promoted “critical thinking.” Now, after a generation of experimenting with a content-free curriculum, the university has begun having second thoughts. Last October, a faculty panel made some modest proposals, in particular that students be required to take courses in American history, ethics, and religion.

As modest as these proposals were, they were not modest enough. The requirement of a course on religion was viewed with alarm, and was the first to fall. In December the panel changed the requirement to courses that addressed “what it means to be a human being.” Of course, any class might be said to do this, such as a survey of evolutionary biology. Last week another of the panel’s modest requirements fell by the wayside. Rather than a compulsory course in American history, students should be exposed to “values, customs, and institutions that differ from their own,” so that they would overcome their “parochialism.”

Come again? A recent study has shown that the American undergraduate, during his four years in college, loses rather than gains knowledge about American history and politics. The high school senior who recognized the Federalist Papers becomes the college senior who does not. This erosion of knowledge about their own country and culture is particularly pronounced at America’s best institutions of higher education (including my own, alas). If there is parochialism at play, it is that which clings valiantly to the curricular innovations of the early 1970′s, in defiance of all experience and data. President Faust will have her hands full. Look for her to step gingerly.


Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »





Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.