Harvard to Include Practical Courses in Curriculum

All Harvard undergraduates should take classes that help shape them as citizens in the 21st century, including courses on the United States and foreign societies, according to a final report proposing the first curriculum overhaul in three decades.

The report, released Wednesday by a panel of professors, also calls for spicing up classes with more hands-on activities and making more connections to students’ life outside the classroom.

Harvard’s general education curriculum, known as the core, was designed in the 1970s and has been criticized as too esoteric, allowing professors to teach whatever interests them.

The report recommends that professors should instead design courses around preparing students to participate in civic life, understand the world around them, respond to the constant change in society, and understand the ethical implications of what they do.

“A liberal arts education is not about going off for four years and studying in a closet — and then your life starts,” said Alison Simmons, a philosophy professor and cochairwoman of the task force. “We think a liberal arts education affects the life you’ll lead. It’ll make you think differently and understand yourself and the world better.”

The report, which will be watched closely by higher education leaders across the country, deals not with every class at Harvard but with general education, the classes undergraduates are required to take outside their major, about a year’s worth of classes spread over four years. Professors will discuss the report in a meeting next week and are likely to vote on it later this spring.

More professors at Harvard are focusing on the quality of undergraduates’ academic experience, influenced partly by the high visibility this year of Derek Bok, Harvard’s interim president, who has written that American universities are not teaching students enough. Another high level task force recently called for making teaching, traditionally considered secondary to research, a more important priority; the group proposed that a professor’s teaching should become a bigger factor in annual raises.

The proposal by the curriculum task force would require students to take one course in each of eight areas, which are not that different from the old core. The main change is that professors would be asked to design the courses with real-world relevance in mind.

The task force earlier jettisoned a preliminary recommendation that every student be required to take a religion class after some professors objected last fall. However, members of the task force said that religion is covered by several of the eight broad categories, including one called culture and belief.

The other seven areas cover arts and literature, life sciences, physical sciences, empirical reasoning, ethics, the United States, and societies of the world.

In his 2006 book, “Our Underachieving Colleges,” Bok cited a study that found that students remembered only 42 percent of what they heard in a lecture by the end of the lecture and only 20 percent a week later. He argued that students learn far more when they are actively engaged in activities related to the course.

As an illustration of how to make learning more active, students in an art course might meet with performers or curators, Harvard professors said yesterday. In a cognitive neuroscience course, a student could write a paper about how research sheds light on the negotiations in a model United Nations.

Even in enormous lecture classes, professors should at least leave time for questions and answers, the report argues.

“Just as one doesn’t become a marathon runner by reading about the Boston Marathon, so, too, one doesn’t become a good problem solver by listening to lectures or reading about statistics,” wrote the members of the task force.

Professors teaching general education courses should, as much as possible, apply the academic concepts they teach “to the solution of concrete problems, the accomplishment of specific tasks, and the creation of actual objections and out-of-classroom experiences,” the report said.

Because so many Harvard undergraduates are passionate about their extracurricular activities, the authors call for Harvard to set up a new committee to figure out how students can, on a voluntary basis, link those activities to the classroom. While they don’t lay out a detailed plan, task force members suggest that students could write papers that show how their activities inform intellectual ideas and vice versa.

Students, for example, could work on a political campaign while studying American government or work in the local Brazilian community while studying language and history, said psychology professor Stephen M. Kosslyn, a task force member.

Some Harvard classes already do that. Sociology professor Mary C. Waters, also on the task force, points to a class in her department in which students do internships in local nonprofits while studying social problems and social change.

“It’s not like a co-op where you get credit for doing work,” she said. “It’s more that you connect your academic work with something in the real world.”

A number of students interviewed yesterday did not agree that their education should be more hands-on.

“My gut reaction is that it seems kind of grade schoolish,” said Jonathan Lehman, a junior from New York City. “I’d like to think we’ve grown up past the point where we need special presentations and field trips to be interested in the materials.”

But his girlfriend, Liesje Hodgson, a junior from New Jersey, disagreed, saying that she gained perspective on engineering in a class that included several trips, including one to a water-treatment facility.

“I would love to see that kind of thing in more classes,” she said.