More than a name at Harvard

Crew and DunsterWhat happens at Harvard University matters to journalists covering higher education. Whether you like it or not, as Hahvad goes, the rest of American academia goes, as the saying goes.

The debate at Harvard on what to do with the institution’s longstanding yet controversial core curriculum drew the attention of Newsweek‘s BeliefWatch section. Lisa Miller writes that new recommendations for the core curriculum will sustain “considerable damage from the culture wars.”

The skirmish centers on what to do with the traditional requirement that students take a course intended to teach them about religion and ethics. Why? Well, because religion matters in the world. But if you read the Newsweekpiece you’re led to believe that the battle is over what to call this segment of the curriculum. We are encouraged to ask, What’s in a name?

A friend of mine who attended Harvard in the 1990s said the requirement was called “Moral Reasoning” and included courses about religion and others that were closer to secular philosophy. My friend took a course on the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and one on the Old Testament.

A task force that will likely decide the issue of the core curriculum decided that all students should do some coursework in an area they would call “Reason & Faith,” according to the Newsweek piece. But some folks at the institution did not like that much:

Criticism was loud and immediate — and came largely from the science faculty. “There is an enormous constituency of people who would hold that faith and reason are two routes to knowledge. It is a mistake to affirm that,” says Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. “It’s like having a requirement in ‘Astronomy & Astrology.’ They’re not comparable topics.” Pinker is not just splitting hairs. In a 2006 study of the religious beliefs of science professors at elite universities, SUNY Buffalo sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found that many are infuriated by what they see as a widespread erosion of belief in proven scientific theories, such as evolution. “Some of the faculty I talked to wanted to suppress discussion of religion in the classroom,” she says. Pinker says he’s all for teaching students about world religions, just not as a requirement.

Enough people agreed with him. In December the task force withdrew its “Reason & Faith” recommendation, substituting instead a category called “What It Means to Be a Human Being.” On the phone, Louis Menand, the English professor who cochaired the task force, sounds exhausted. “It’s noncontroversial that there is this thing called religion out there and that it has an enormous impact on the world we live in. Scholars should be able to study and teach it without getting cooties” — a term of art, not science.

learningNewsweek‘s piece isn’t bad. It captures the main issue on the surface, which I guess is all you can do in a short column, but the substance of the story could have been portrayed more thoroughly. The fuss appears to be just over the name, but it is more than that. It involves what type of courses will fall in this category. For instance, do courses on Kant, Nietzsche or Marx fall into this category?

Harvard isn’t going to stop offering courses in religion anytime soon. The bigger question is whether the students in Cambridge will be required to take courses in that area. If students are no longer required to take courses in that area, department budgets could be affected.

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  • bob

    Your photo tells more than you realize; rowing *is* the religion at Harvard, didn’t you know?

  • dpulliam

    Bob, I’m glad you caught the irony.

  • Jonathan

    As a college professor, folks like Steven Pinker make me realize that the Enlightenment Project is dead. The death of a REAL liberal arts education begins with guys like Pinker. (sigh)

  • Meg Q

    Mmmmm . . . Hahvahd . . . so pwetty . . .

    Anyway -

    My father, a mechanical engineer, has always been grateful that he had to do his two-year “core” at Notre Dame back in the old days. It gave him lots to think about, and he’s always felt that it helped him have a strong ethical and philosophical base in the Army and then in a long managerial career, regardless of what he got from the religion courses (which, being Catholic, he got quite a lot). Plus, one of his English courses introduced him to his favorite book, E. B. White’s “One Man’s Meat”, which he re-reads every 2 years or so. He felt that having a good liberal arts formation, especially including philosophy and logic, made him better in his engineering pursuits, and, later, as a manager, helped more than a bachelor’s of business admin ever would.

    All this is to say, courses in philosophy and religion give one the tools to begin to parse all those things around us which surely exist, yet are not material. Yet now, for some reason (and certainly contra the great traditions of scientists past), it seems most of the science and math faculties are almost purely materialists. And dogmatic materialists at that. The scientific disciplines are constantly changing, but study of the “eternal verities” (whether or not you believe them) gives one grist for the mental and emotional mill and can in fact change how one approaches one’s scientific discipline, and certainly one’s method of deliberation. There are reasons why a liberal arts core has long been thought fundamental – and instead of being obsolete, this core is more essential now than ever, when shoddy thinking is everywhere apparent.

    I thought this was interesting:

    SUNY Buffalo sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found that many are infuriated by what they see as a widespread erosion of belief in proven scientific theories, such as evolution.

    Can someone tell me what a proven scientific theory is? Anyone? (Richard Dawkins, please put your hand down.) No, seriously, I know what that means, but look what else it says: “erosion of belief”. Well. That’s interesting.

  • meverest

    Last I heard, compared to their colleagues in the humanities, science faculty were much closer to the general public when it comes to their belief in a personal God, religious observance, etc.

    So is the big news/ghost in this story the fact that “Criticism…came largely from the science faculty”?

    Maybe there was one loud voice over there, but what about the majority?

  • Mattk

    I wish the article could have given us more information on Dr. Pinker. Whether or not it is true, the article makes him sound like a twit. It would be better to have more information about him.

    Other questions: Why did Harvard establish a core curriculm? What did students have to do before 1978? Could they spend 4 years doing nothing but Art History and get a degree?

  • Cole

    Can someone tell me what a proven scientific theory is?

    It’s a theory that’s received the strongest kind of empirical support.

    First, you’re mistaken if you think a ‘theory’ is by definition a second-rate piece of science, or that when theories get enough support, they turn into something else — theories don’t ‘graduate’. No, the term ‘theory’ is used for any explanatory framework in science, even the best ones, even the successful ones, even the true ones, even the ones that you’d have to be stupid or uninformed to doubt — like the kinetic-molecular theory of gases, or the germ theory of disease, or the theory of evolution.

    Second, the term ‘proof’ can be used in a lot of different contexts, with slightly different standards for each context. In mathematics, I take it, you use ‘proof’ only for step-by-step demonstrations. In a court of law, things are different. And in science, things are different again. Some scientists like to insist that science doesn’t deal in proofs, using the mathematical use of the term in order to highlight the provisional character of scientific results. But this is a bit pedantic, and no one should have a problem with saying (in any ordinary conversational context) that e.g. the germ theory of disease has been proven. Has it been proven that cigarettes cause cancer? Yes, of course, unless you’re a pedant who likes to switch contexts.

    look what else it says: “erosion of belief”. Well. That’s interesting.

    ‘Belief’ is not an exclusively religious term. Belief is just when you think something is true: I believe that 2+2=4, and that the North won the Civil War, and that cats cannot talk. These things are true. Why shouldn’t I believe them?

    (Every one of these points was about the misunderstanding or misuse of a term!)

  • Martha

    The irony of a psychologist – one of the ‘soft’ sciences and regarded by some scientists as akin to Victorian botany, i.e., ladies picking wild flowers for their albums – defending the sciences is, of course, lost upon Professor Pinker. If he’s adamant that to defend the pure citadel of science they’ve got to toss those misguided idiots who think faith and reason can co-exist, then bye, bye, Sir Isaac Newton.

    In fact, they’d better have a purge of the entire Physics department, because stuff like that is way too out there and airy-fairy theoretical moonshine to satisfy the tough, realistic, feet on the ground men of the world in the Psychology department. Who can’t even agree if such a thing as consciousness exists, let alone do we possess it?

  • Petellius

    I am only peripherally aware of these goings on, but I thought some more information might be appreciated.

    Prior to 1978, Harvard had a “General Education” requirement. What this consisted of, I am not certain. Anyone really interested should probably check out Phyllis Keller’s “Getting at the Core: Curricular Reform at Harvard” (HUP, 1982).

    The current Core Curriculum was phased in between 1978-1982. It consists of 11 areas of study; students are required to take one course in each of the 7 areas deemed to be most remote from their major. The 11 areas are:

    Foreign Cultures
    Historical Study A (focused on aspects/trends of the modern world & their development)
    Historical Study B (focused on specific historical periods or phenomena)
    Literature & Arts A (text-based literary study)
    Literature & Arts B (art, art history, & music)
    Literature & Arts C (social/interdisciplinary literary study)
    Moral Reasoning
    Quantitative Reasoning
    Science A (physical sciences; heavily quantitative)
    Science B (biological & environmental sciences; less math)
    Social Analysis

    More information about the current core can be found at the Harvard Core website, linked by Martha.

    Last year, the Gen Ed report came out, and suggested some revisions to the Core structure. The proposal was that now, students would have to take one course in each of 7 areas:

    Cultural Traditions and Cultural Change
    The Ethical Life
    The United States
    Societies of the World
    Reason and Faith
    Life Sciences
    Physical Sciences

    Part of this seems to be just semantics: Life Sciences and Physical Sciences are just nicer-sounding names for the old Science B and Science A, respectively. Likewise Moral Reasoning has become The Ethical Life.

    Much of the category shifting was based on the new fad for interdisciplinary studies in academia. You can see, for instance, how replacing History with “Cultural Traditions and Cultural Change” is meant to make everything wonderfully interdisciplinary and vague. And overlaying everything (this is not evident from the list above, but was clearly stated in the report itself, and was one of its most controversial aspects) was a determination that everything must be made relevant to modern American life. Nothing in the past could be taught of solely as regards the past; it had to be related somehow to 21st century American life.

    When this report came out, there was criticism shouted from all over the place. The loudest criticisms were (in no particular order) over (i) the inclusion of religion, (ii) the “Americanocentrism” (fake word, I know), (iii) the “presentism” (another made-up word, but a valid criticism), (iv) the complete lack of anything that would correspond to the old Lit & Arts B (i.e., no more study of the Fine Arts). As a result, the whole thing is in the process of yet another overhaul. What will end up happening is anyone’s guess

  • Maureen

    Once upon a time, Harvard was a religious school. Founded to train preachers, IIRC.

    Just saying.

  • Eric Phillips

    I see someone beat me to that interesting phrase “proven scientific theories.” And we’ve had a post defending it too. Yes, it’s true that “proven” can mean several things. It can even mean nothing more than “having weathered the test of time.” But in a polemical context, it claims a lot more than that. It’s a tendentious word to use in the context of such a dispute.

  • Scott Allen

    DPulliam states that “Harvard isn’t going to stop offering courses in religion anytime soon.”
    Why not? I, for one, hope they do. If the Religion department cannot successfully argue that some religions (Christianity, for one) are reasonable, then the faculty are incompetent and courses not worth taking. Now, I fully realize that most of these professors are not believers, but they could at least regurgitate the reasonable arguments laid out by the church fathers, etc.
    DPulliam closes his post by noting that “If students are no longer required to take courses in that area, department budgets could be affected.” That would be a great first step toward eliminating these faux savants from teaching on topics of Truth.

  • Cole

    Yes, it’s true that “proven” can mean several things. It can even mean nothing more than “having weathered the test of time.” But in a polemical context, it claims a lot more than that. It’s a tendentious word to use in the context of such a dispute.

    I don’t see how it’s tendentious to call evolution a proven theory. Unless you’re in a conversation with creationists or something. I mean, I suppose it can be tendentious to say that the link between smoking and cancer has been proven, if you’re in a really weird conversation. But otherwise it’s a perfectly innocuous claim to make.

  • Mattk

    Cole, I think you are wrong. Theories do graduate. Some become laws. If I remember the 4th grade correctly, a theory is an idea that does a really good job of predicting the future, an outcome. Ptolemy’s theory did a really good job predicting the location of the planets. But it was wrong. It did not become a law. Now we know about heliocentricism and eliptical orbits. I have never heard anyone refer to the law of eliptical orbits but I have heard of the Law of Gravity, which is necessary for the eliptical orbits to work as predicted.

    Some other laws that come to mind are the Laws of Thermodynamics, the Law of the Inverse Square, and the Law of Biogenesis. Perhaps there are others. I do not know. I am not a scientist. But to say that theories do not graduate is incorrect.

  • Cole

    Mattk, nope, you’ve got it wrong. Laws and theories are different kinds of things entirely. Theories, like I said, are something like explanatory frameworks — big bundles of connected things, including concepts, models, experimental techniques, and laws. A law is an (often mathematical) expression of a general relationship between certain natural kinds or physical quantities — often a formula or equation.

    Looking at examples should make it clear:

    Examples of theories: Aristotelian biology, Aristotelian mechanics, four-humor theory of medicine, Newtonian mechanics, germ theory of disease, phlogiston theory, caloric theory, kinetic-molecular theory of gases, special and general relativity, evolutionary biology, string theory.

    Examples of laws: Newton’s laws of motion (including F=ma), Snell’s law (in optics), Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, the ideal gas law (pV=nRT), Ohm’s law (V=IR), Maxwell’s equations, the laws of thermodynamics, and the inverse square law (F = -Gm1m2/r^2).

    Notice how theories can be outdated and discredited, or successful and highly confirmed, or just speculative. But still they’re all theories — they don’t become laws upon confirmation, because laws are a different kind of thing entirely. And notice how laws can be strictly speaking false (e.g. the laws of Newtonian mechanics) but they’re still spoken of as laws because that’s the kind of thing they are.

    And FYI, evolutionary biology has laws, most famously the Hardy-Weinberg law from mathematical population genetics.

  • joe perez

    I’ll have more to say on the Newsweek story on my blog in the near future, but a quick note from a former religion major at Harvard: the above article and comments neglect to mention that Harvard also offers a religion major for undergraduates (The Comparative Study of Religion) and allows undergraduates to freely attend suitable courses at Harvard Divinity School. Besides, as previously noted, the Moral Reasoning core curriculum requirement has always included courses on Christian ethics, Jewish ethics, Buddhist ethics, etc. There is no shortage of opportunities for undergrads to learn about religion; there is no shortage of faculty who believe religion is worth studying seriously; there is no imminent threat (so far as I can tell) to the departmental budget of the religion department.

    Assertions to the contrary that would seek to paint this story as a major episode in the culture war, are exaggerated. Attempts to portray this as a case of Harvard poo-poo’ing the study of religion are flatly erroneous.

    Questions that begin as dpulliam’s does… “If students are no longer required to take courses in that area [religion]“… uh, need not be entertained by anyone seriously concerned about the actual debate at Harvard, though it can be fun to imagine far-fetched mythical hypotheticals.

    Whatever the new religion requirement is called, it seems evident that there is largely agreement that the school should offer MORE requirements to study religion than currently exist, not fewer. I do hope that Harvard chooses a term that includes the word “religion,” though. The “What it Means to be a Human Being” is too phallologopresentocentric.

  • Mattk

    Cole, I wish I had your email address so I could send you a thanks. (This comment doesn’t really belong on this blog.) But i don’t. So, thanks. You have just provided me with quite a bit of reading to do. I appeciate your answer.

  • Mattk


    We hae a winner for the coolest word in the comments section contest: phallologopresentocentric