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Harvard Task Force Calls for New Focus on Teaching and Not Just Research

Zhigang Suo's picture

The New York Times carried an article the other day, reporting on a document titled "A Compact to Enhance Teaching and Learning at Harvard".  I happened to be at the faculty meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences when the documment was discussed.  I heard eloquent speeches, but couldn't say that I heard anything really innovative.   Many of my colleagues spend much time teaching and find the experience rewarding.  So, what is the problem?

It seems to me a much more urgent question is what and how we should teach in the time of the Internet and Globalization.  Harvard is undergoing a curricular review.  I have not been following this review closely, but have been deeply impressed by essays written by seveal faculty members.  I would particularly like to call to your attention to the essay written by George Whitesides, a chemist and a materials scientist.  We mechanicians should also begin to think what we can contribute to a curriculum of our time.  


Ting Tsui's picture

Recently, I have been wondering how much of my “well-balanced” high school and undergraduate engineering curriculums (both in the US) is important to my career and as a human being. History, religion, and literature (both world and regional) were mandatory subjects at the time. Unfortunately, their values are yet to be demonstrated. On the other hand, social science subjects, such as economics and foreign languages, are the most important to-date and produced the most values both in technical and everyday life. I attended at least four high level classes in Economics (as free electives) – micro/macro, money and banking, international trading, and labor economics. Since capitalism is based on open market theories, how can one survive “the new global world” without basic knowledge in this area? How do decisions made by governments oversea affect your job? From the chip design to the internet applications, capitalism/economy/Wall Street controls the direction of science in this new age! Social science subjects should play a more important role in any engineering curriculum. I begin to question the importance of the humanity subjects in the foreseeable future even though I am a person who enjoys arts and literatures.

Zhigang Suo's picture

At today’s Meeting of Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Faculty voted to approve the legislation for a new program in General Education.The new program requires students to take a semester-long course in each of the following areas:

  • Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding
  • Culture and Belief
  • Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning
  • Ethical Reasoning
  • Science of Living Systems
  • Science of the Physical Universe
  • Societies of the World
  • The United States and the World

The legislation is available online along with a formal announcement: ( Direct links to the pdf files:

Zhigang Suo's picture

Fred Abernathy, whose office is near mine,  gave me a copy of newly passed New Program in General Education.  I read through it this evening.  Everything sounded reasonable and familiar.  Then I looked at our course catalogue this year.  Here are our old (and existing) areas of Core Curriculum:

  • Foreign cultures
  • Historical study
  • Literature and arts
  • Moral reasoning
  • quantitative reasoning
  • Science
  • Social analysis

No wonder the New Program looks familiar.  It is almost a 1-1 mapping of the old one:

  • Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding (Literature and arts)
  • Culture and Belief (Social analysis, Historical study)
  • Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning (quantitative reasoning)
  • Ethical Reasoning (Moral reasoning)
  • Science of Living Systems (Science)
  • Science of the Physical Universe (Science)
  • Societies of the World (Foreign cultures)
  • The United States and the World (Social analysis, Historical study)

Sophisticated people may argue that the mapping is not strictly 1-1.  Or, perhaps, asking for innovation is asking for wrong thing here.  The outcome of the New Program is perhaps simply a restatement of the value of general education in an increasingly specialized world.  I'm all for that, and don't think much is really at stake.  But if this is the case, why not the report simply says so?   Why so many heated debates for so many times at faculty meetings? 

The devil is in the details, someone might say.  Ah...  Academic debates are sophisticated (and therefore interesting?) because the stakes are small. 

Do I miss anything?

Today ,I have read a biography about James Robert .Rice(JRR), A paragraphy of the biography was also about the relationship between research and teaching, which was written as"As an assistant professor at Brown, JRR devoted his energy and efforts not only to research but also to teaching. He always believed that a good professor must excel in teaching and research. He offered many courses in applied mechanics. He developed his own lecture notes in each course without relying on specific text books. During lecturing in a typical class, he memorized every important piece of information and used the blackboard to convey the concepts to students. He was an excellent and effective communicator. Students were always welcome and encouraged to ask questions or engage in discussions. Copies of his lecture notes highlighting the key information including methods of derivations and final resulting formulae were distributed to his students."

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