A More Demanding Curriculum

"A More Demanding Curriculum," Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2004.


Our curriculum is what we, the faculty, choose to put before our students. It is what we collectively choose. Individually, we choose courses to teach that arise from our research and that we expect will forward it, and also courses that we think students want or ought to have in the subfields for which we take responsibility. These individual courses reflect a sense of duty; they are not simply personal whims or eccentricities or ways to shine. They are meant to be contributions to the whole and they are thought out as such. But they are not a curriculum resulting from a common deliberation as to what students ought to learn or have available to learn. We are now engaged in a common deliberation for the purpose of bringing our individual choices together so that they make sense to us as a faculty and not only to each of us as individual professors.

To see where we are now, let’s look at the two curricular reviews we have had not quite within living memory—one for general education in 1945 and another for the core program prior to 1978, when the core was instituted. General education was presented in a book, the once-famous Red Book—General Education in a Free Society—that should still impress readers in our time. The Red Book has an introduction by President James Bryant Conant, who appointed the committee of stalwarts—administrators and professors—who put together the curriculum and wrote the report initiating and explaining “general education.” With the strong leadership of the president, the report was designed for cohesion and achieved it. It was designed ambitiously not only for Harvard but also for “a free society” in which, of course, Harvard would be a leader not only of private higher education but of all education, public and private, from primary schools (discussed in the report) to graduate education. Throughout, the authors made reference to the requirements and hopes of American democracy.

General Education and the Red Book

What was “general education”? it was the same as “liberal education,” and it referred above all to what should be common in our education. The advance of science, it was seen, came through specialization, which resulted in more specialization; the danger was that the modern university’s specialties would bring it to disregard what was and needed to be common to learning. Because specialized learning is so abstruse, the university could no longer communicate with fellow citizens. Perhaps more embarrassing, members of the faculty could not understand one another, and the university couldn’t communicate with itself.

The Red Book did not assume that general education was easy to achieve. It identified problems in education as such, some of them intensified in a democracy: how to combine the citizen and the whole man; how to serve both the gifted (traced to Thomas Jefferson’s insistence on promoting the talented) and the average (championed by Andrew Jackson); how to reconcile the practice of free inquiry with the need for “firm belief” by both the gifted and the average; and the related difficulty of seeking new insights while preserving tradition. It also squarely faced the difference between science, or natural science, on the one hand, and the social sciences and the humanities, on the other—a general problem that I think was the greatest concern of President Conant and his committee.