Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Harvard Excommunicates Proposed Religion Requirement

The Boston Globe (motto: "Same ownership as the NY Times, but with even more pronounced leftist bias") reports that Harvard University will not go forward with its radical proposal to require all students to take a course in religion.

Instead, students must take a course from a cluster of disciplines that explore what it means to be a human being. The cluster will include art, literature, philosophy, evolutionary biology and cognitive science as well as religion.

This move can be interpreted various ways. One is as a cave-in to those who have criticized the proposed religion requirement as too narrow. Another is as yet another expression of anti-religion bias at Harvard and other universities in the higher-education establishment.

We'll agree with both of those assessments and add a third: it is likely a response to pressure from various academic departments at Harvard who want to be sure that their turf is covered in the new requirements. No one wants to be in the department that doesn't have courses that meet core requirements. The consequence of such exclusion is lowered enrollment in the department, fewer chances to snag students into the departmental major, and less funding from the university over the long term. Such considerations drive most discussions of curriculum at most universities, where there's hardly an issue that isn't driven by the preservation and expansion of someone's institutional domain.

We'll also decry the obvious balkanization of this proposed, high-minded exploration of human meaning. We doubt very much that a Harvard course in, say, cognitive science or evolutionary biology is likely to be taught with inclusion of significant critique of the reductionistic tendencies of the use of such scientific disciplines to explain human experience. Such critique would largely come from religious circles, of course, and the assumption of the behaviorial and life sciences is that their mandate is to explain all religious notions within their disciplines, not to consider critique of their own discipline from religious thought.

There is an exception in the Harvard curriculum, of course. Those who watched the magisterial PBS series The Question of God know that for years Harvard psychiatrist (!) Dr. Armand Nicholi has taught a course exploring the rationale for belief in God via the exploration of the contrasting lives of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. It's that kind of breadth of thinking, embracing psychology, literature, religion, philosophy and the full palette of human experience, that is missing generally in higher education.

But even in the Harvard desert, there is the occasional oasis. That's why Armand Nicholi is one of our heroes.


JB in CA said...

It's hard to imagine how a course in evolutionary biology is going to capture what it means to be a human being any more than a course in, say, anatomy and physiology would.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

A hundred years ago, it would have been a course in phrenology that would have made the same claim. Sciences come and go, but their grandiose claims to reduce all of human existence to a single explanation persist.