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Wall Street Journal

 

Where Columbia Beats Harvard

September 03, 2010

By James Piereson

In their football rivalry that dates back to 1877, Harvard holds a commanding advantage over Columbia, the Crimson leading 53 to 14. Yet in a contest between their undergraduate curricula, Columbia has more than held its own.

Harvard, under the leadership of Charles William Eliot from 1869 to 1909, pioneered the elective system under which students were given broad choices in the selection of courses and areas of study. Columbia, guided by luminaries like John Erskine, Mark Van Doren and Jacques Barzun, established a core curriculum shortly after World War I based upon the “great books” of Western Civilization. Over the subsequent decades, other colleges and universities adopted one or the other of these two approaches.

In recent years, both institutions have undertaken reviews of their curricula in response to claims that they are out of date in a world of increasing diversity and globalization. Last fall, after several years of study and debate, Harvard’s faculty implemented a new Program in General Education to replace the curriculum that had been in place since 1978.

The older curriculum was organized around “approaches to knowledge,” and required students to take a course or two in eleven different fields ranging from the sciences to the arts and humanities. That curriculum was highly controversial when it was adopted because, as critics said, it elevated methods over substance and “approaches” over knowledge.

Harvard’s new curriculum looks like a warmed over version of the old one. Instead of eleven different fields of study, the faculty has carved up the course catalog into eight areas with new names: Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding, Culture and Belief, Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning, and so on.

Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard, has called the new curriculum “insipid” and “vacuous” because it lacks substance, does not force difficult choices about what students should learn, and defers all such questions to student choice. According to the faculty report endorsing the curriculum, an important objective of a college education is to put students “in a position from which they can choose for themselves what principles will guide them.” As Mr. Mansfield points out, this formulation puts the cart before the proverbial horse, since we usually understand principles or philosophy to guide important choices rather than the other way around.

This is not true at Columbia where students are required to pass through a structured curriculum in which they encounter the great books and artistic creations of Western civilization. Much in contrast to Harvard’s new curriculum, Columbia’s has substance and structure and is guided by a coherent rationale.

Columbia’s Core�currently seven semester-long courses in Contemporary Civilization, Literature Humanities, music, art and science�has been in place continuously since 1919. Though the curriculum has undergone revisions over the decades, the original focus on the great books has survived intact, and so also has the dual emphasis on civilization and literature.

The challenges to such a curriculum are not only ideological. The growing specialization of academia makes it more difficult to nourish and recruit the kinds of generalists who can effectively teach sections of the Core. By contrast, Harvard’s curriculum, which involves no special courses, is far less expensive and cumbersome to maintain.

An easy-going curriculum based upon choice and asking little of students will usually be more popular than a demanding one in which serious books are required to be read and discussed. Even so, the Core is surprisingly popular among students and junior faculty on Columbia’s campus, probably more so today than it was a decade or so ago.

Columbia now finds itself in the company of an expanding list of colleges and universities offering courses of study in the great books, in some cases as core curricula and in others as elective options for students interested in such an education.

In contrast to Harvard’s curriculum, which will require constant revision and new justifications because it must keep pace with changing conditions, Columbia’s curriculum (and others like it) has a stable foundation because it is organized around timeless themes expressed in works that are unlikely to go out of style.

If the objective of a liberal education is to identify the permanent and perennial issues in the midst of flux and change, then Columbia’s curriculum serves that purpose more directly than most alternatives. In judging the two curricula, one does not face a close call. If it were a football game, Columbia would beat Harvard by several touchdowns.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703618504575460011814791360.html?mod=WSJ_Careers_Education

 

 
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