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Harvard announces major curriculum overhaul

Harvard University has announced its biggest curriculum overhaul in three decades, putting new emphasis on sensitive religious and cultural issues, the sciences and overcoming U.S. “parochialism.”
/ Source: Reuters

Harvard University has announced its biggest curriculum overhaul in three decades, putting new emphasis on sensitive religious and cultural issues, the sciences and overcoming U.S. “parochialism.”

The curriculum at the oldest U.S. university has been criticized as focusing too narrowly on academic topics instead of real-life issues, or for being antagonistic to organized religion. Efforts to revise it have been in the works for three years.

One of the eight new required subject areas -- “societies of the world” -- aims to help students overcome U.S. “parochialism” by “acquainting them with the values, customs and institutions that differ from their own,” said a 34-page Harvard report on the changes.

Emphasis on world religions
An earlier proposal would have made Harvard unique among its elite Ivy League peers by requiring undergraduates to study religion as a distinct subject, but that was dropped in December.

The changes to the general-education requirements, imposed on students outside their major, still address religious beliefs and practices. Study of those issues, however, would be folded into a broader subject of “culture and belief.”

The “culture and belief” requirement will “introduce students to ideas, art and religion in the context of the social, political, religious, economic and cross-cultural conditions” that shape them, Harvard said.

Founded to train Puritan ministers 370 years ago, Harvard has been criticized by some conservatives in recent decades as a liberal bastion unfriendly toward religion.

A task force of six professors and two students which drafted the new curriculum said religion should be addressed, but only as one of several cultural influences.

“Harvard is a secular institution but religion is an important part of our students’ lives,” it said. It noted that 94 percent of Harvard’s incoming students report that they discuss religion “frequently” or “occasionally,” and 71 percent say that they attend religious services.

Higher profile for science
Under the changes, science wins greater prominence, including the study of the ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research, which has raised hope for cures for ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease while being opposed by Christian groups and others as an immoral destruction of human life.

Plagiarism -- which rocked Harvard last year when a novel by star undergraduate writer Kaavya Viswanathan was found to have copied passages from another work -- is also addressed.

The curriculum shake-up is the first major overhaul since Harvard formulated its current “core” course requirements in the 1970s. It had been advanced by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who resigned his post in June after a faculty revolt over his leadership style.

Other new requirements include the study of empirical reasoning, ethical reasoning, the science of living systems, the science of the physical universe, and “aesthetic and interpretive understanding”.