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.