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Harvard lightens up on students, lets them take more classes pass-fail

Come fall, Harvard University will allow students to take as many as half of their general education requirements pass-fail – a decision praised by students but prompting concern among some faculty.

In interviews with The College Fix, two Harvard grads said they thought it was a good idea, at least in principle, to take pressure off of the grade and place the emphasis on learning. But in an indication that the decision may be controversial on campus, repeated attempts by The College Fix to get administrators, current students and faculty to weigh in were ignored or rebuffed.

The pass-fail options were rolled out as part of a new general education curriculum at the Ivy League school. The overhaul did not diminish the number of courses required – eight – and most of the previous gen ed categories remain the same. Yet, students have greater freedom of choice within the categories, and less pressure to attain a certain grade.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay Harris clarified at a faculty meeting that the ability for students to enroll in a class pass-fail remains in the hands of the professors. Some professors have said they find this stipulation bothersome, and believe it places them in a difficult position.

Comparative study of religion Professor Diana Eck called the change “appalling,” the Crimson campus newspaper reports.

“I don’t really want students in my class who are both pass-fail and letter grade unless the pass-fail are not doing it for Gen Ed credit,” Eck said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me, it feels like a weakening of this requirement and puts instructors in a strange position.”

And the Daily Pennsylvanian reports “faculty voiced concerns about how the new pass-fail option would affect the rigor of General Education courses, as well as whether the program will receive the financial resources necessary for its implementation.”

Yet, university President Drew Faust called the program overhaul “a historic moment.”

“Undergraduates should receive a liberal, interdisciplinary education that emphasizes elective opportunities and literacy in writing and mathematics,” Faust said.

The editorial board of the Harvard Crimson echoed those sentiments, stating they believe that “allowing students to take gen ed courses pass-fail has the potential to facilitate this goal by giving students greater freedom to take courses of interest…opportunities to explore new academic disciplines in low-stakes contexts are crucial.”

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The pass-fail came as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences approved the new curriculum requirements in early March to replace the existing 30-year-old core curriculum. The new program requires students to take four courses in new gen ed categories and three distribution requirements across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. An additional course in “quantitative facility” is required for graduation.

The gen ed requirements are separated into the categories of: aesthetic and interpretative understanding (now renamed “aesthetics and culture”); culture and belief; empirical and mathematical reasoning; ethical reasoning; science of living systems; science of the physical universe; societies of the world; and the United States in the world. Students previously chose one course from each category and all were evaluated by letter grades.

The core curriculum courses within each category vary greatly in both subject matter, time period, and region of the world, permitting students to pursue a smattering of different studies.

“In contrast with the Core Curriculum, which required that students be exposed to a number of different ways of knowing, the new program seeks explicitly to connect a student’s liberal education – that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry, rewarding in its own right – to life beyond college,” its website states.

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About the Author
Kate Hardiman -- University of Notre Dame