aBy Richard Vedder
While the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) is primarily interested in cost, affordability, productivity, and accountability issues, the major "output" of most institutions of higher education is the learning imparted to students, so what is taught is a matter deserving our occasional attention. Harvard is the nation's oldest, wealthiest, and most elite university, so its curricular reforms appropriately attract considerable attention.
Of late, Harvard's efforts at reforming its "general education" core have been something of an embarassment, with several proposed changes being roundly criticized on campus and beyond, including by such eminent scholars as Yale's Donald Kagan. Now a new general education proposal has been unveiled, and from news accounts that I have read it seems to have some promise.
Harvard is narrowing considerably the menu approach to learning, still giving students some choices but more narrowly defining areas where some formal study is expected. I was pleased to see a required course on U.S. history or institutions, a similar one relating to non-U.S. areas ("the world'), and one on "faith and reason." Students are being nudged to learn a bit about the American past, and about the evolution of non-U.S. societies, and to explore religions of the world. That is all to the good. As the recent Intercollegiate Studies Institute study shows, Harvard students seem to add little to their existing knowledge of U.S. civic institutions in their four years in Cambridge. Certainly potential leaders of our nation should know more about their heritage than they currently do. For our society to be cohesive, for us to find those common things that bind diverse citizens together in a political entity we call America, we need to know a good deal about our past. Harvard's propsed new curriculum encourages that learning.
To be sure, it would be nice if all students had a good grounding in lots of things --economics, history, political science, philosophy, sciences,foreign languages, etc. But there is a finite limit of things we can teach our students, and the demands for specialized knowledge in some "major" field are also present. After all, colleges need to fulfill the vocational objectives of higher education, and presumably what is learned in these specialized courses prepares students for careers (that assumption, however, has only limited validity in the real world, as many students take jobs only remotely connected with their major).
Necessarily, we must be very selective in determining what is truly vital and essential for everyone to know. Harvard seems like it is making an honest and arguably successful effort in defining that essential core body of knowledge. I would have preferred even more specificity -- e.g., a requirement that students take a specific survey course in U.S. history --but this is a step in the right direction. Let us hope the Harvard faculty has the good sense to approve it, and that other schools look to Harvard just as they did several decades ago when the Harvard "red book" was influential in impacting curricular change nationally.