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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