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Harvard panel sets aside plan on religion

Professors designing a new curriculum for undergraduates at Harvard University have rescinded their proposal that all students take a class dealing with religion.

Instead, the faculty task force suggested a different, broader category, "what it means to be a human being," in a revised proposal released late last week. The human nature requirement would encompass religious thought, art, literature, and philosophy, as well as evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

Harvard made waves in October when the task force released a preliminary redesign for general education -- the requirements imposed on students outside their major -- that included a category called "reason and faith."

The original proposal said students often struggle to make sense of the relationship between their own religious beliefs and the secular and intellectual world they encounter in college.

It also noted that wars are fought in the name of religion and that the topic is central to some of the most contentious contemporary debates, over evolution, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. It said "reason and faith" courses were not meant to be "religious apologetics," but examinations of cultural and social context.

Professors in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences have spent the last two months debating the general education proposal, which emphasizes what students need to know to be responsible citizens in society. Several professors had objected to the religion category, saying that it gave too much emphasis to only one of many important forces shaping the world.

"If this is meant to educate students about the role of religion in history and current affairs, why isn't it just a part of the 'US and the World' requirement?" asked psychology professor Steven Pinker in October in an essay in the Harvard Crimson Oct. 27. "Religion is an important force, to be sure, but so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history?"

Alison Simmons, a philosophy professor and cochairwoman of the general education task force, said her group did not make the switch because of objections to the topic. Rather, she said, they were convinced by their colleagues that the subject would be adequately covered by other categories, including the moral reasoning requirement and requirements covering society in the United States and abroad.

"What it means to be a human being" is an attempt to cover important aspects of the humanities that received less focus in the original proposal, Simmons said, and is not meant as a direct substitute for religion.

The move is sure to disappoint people both inside and outside Harvard who were excited to see the subject considered for elevation to an important place in the curriculum.

"I think secular and liberal Harvard rebelled," government professor Harvey Mansfield, one of the campus's most outspoken conservatives, said last night.

The task force plans to release a final proposal in January. The entire arts and sciences faculty will then decide whether and how to implement their report.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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