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Photo: Haim Horenstein
Harvard drops religion course requirement
University says canceled controversial proposal that would have required all undergraduates to study religion

Harvard University said Wednesday it had dropped a controversial proposal that would have required all undergraduates to study religion as part of the biggest overhaul of its curriculum in three decades.

 

Efforts to revamp Harvard's curriculum, which has been criticized for focusing too narrowly on academic topics instead of real-life issues, have been in the works for three years.

 

A proposal for a "reason and faith" course requirement, which would have set Harvard apart from many other universities and made it unique among its peers in the elite Ivy League, was unveiled in a preliminary report in October.

 

"We have removed 'reason and faith' as a distinct category," a faculty task force said in a revised report, excerpts of which were obtained by Reuters.

 

"Courses dealing with religion -- both those examining normative reasoning in a religious context and those engaging in a descriptive examination of the roles that religion plays today and has historically played -- can be readily accommodated in other categories," it said.

 

Harvard professor Louis Menand, who co-chaired the committee that drafted the plan, said religion competed with other, equally valid subjects.

 

"It is an important subject, but nationalism is an important subject, and race is an important subject and markets is an important subject," said Menand, whose book "The Metaphysical Club" won a Pulitzer Prize for history in 2002.

 

'What it means to be a human being' 

"If we are going to go to that level of specificity of what we require there are probably half a dozen other things that can compete with it. So we thought we had to bump up the subject descriptions to include more things than religion."

 

The task force comprising six professors and two students released the report to faculty last week. A final report will be presented in January to faculty, who have a chance to add suggestions and decide whether to implement the requirements.

 

"We feel we are pretty close to done and the faculty seems interested in what we have proposed," Menand said.

 

The proposals include a course requirement on "what it means to be a human being," which is expected to broadly cover a number of areas in the humanities. They also proposed two science courses among several other requirements.

 

These include a course examining the United States in context of the rest of the world and courses on global societies, cultural traditions, and human nature and the human condition.

 

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

 

Course requirements at America's eight Ivy League schools vary widely, but if Harvard's proposal for a "faith and reason" requirement had been accepted it would have been the only one where a course in religion was required.

 

It would have also marked a nod to Harvard's roots as a school founded to train Puritan ministers 370 years ago.

 


First published: 12.14.06, 18:11
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