Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Concentrations

An example of policy issues discussed at Harvard right now: on Monday, we had a physics faculty meeting. Gary Feldman explained that someone at FAS wanted to cancel the joint concentrations. In the case of physics, the joint concentrations are moderately important, especially for the students focusing on Physics/Mathematics and Physics/Astronomy. The FAS plan was to replace the joint concentrations by "secondary fields" that would not appear on the diplomas.

This topic is not going to destroy the civilization but still: cancellation of the joint Physics/Mathematics and Physics/Astronomy programs at America's most well-known college is not a completely irrelevant detail.

On Monday, Gary explained these things to us. Bert Halperin wanted to hear the arguments of the proponents first. Gary argued that they seem to have no arguments; at least none of them were mentioned in the document that proposed it. This statement of Gary seems to be supported by all other sources that I have seen and heard so far. We exchanged a few more words and then voted: everyone (in the physics department who participated) voted that the proposal should be re-considered.

Yesterday, the proposal for the new system was presented by EPC at the FAS faculty meeting, and Gary was not the only one who responded negatively although the negative replies used somewhat contradictory arguments (which is not a real contradiction because different departments and fields may require different things).

As The Crimson reports, the proposal was presented by David Laibson, a very reasonable economist who was incidentally one of the driving forces behind the petition supporting Summers against hysterical attacks of the feminists and their allies.

Nevertheless, I don't believe that EPC understands the logic and situation in sciences well enough to make constructive recommendations. This suggestion opens several questions: How important it is to allow joint concentrations? How much coursework should be required for one field or another? Is it too much, is it too little, is it too much more than in other fields, is it enough for the student to get familiar with everything that is important in her or his field? Is there enough time left for the student to think about the world independently? Is the joint program difficult enough so that it won't become just a way to simplify one's life? Does the student have enough opportunity to choose the field that he or she would find important at the end?

I can imagine that a very enlightened leader who understands sciences etc. could make a reasonable decision that takes all of these questions into account. But I am much more skeptical that a committee of non-scientists should be expected to make a good decision. Such decisions affect the work of the departments such as the Physics Department, and this is the level where these relatively technical decisions should be made.

Decisions that affect the relative growth of different fields etc. should almost certainly be done centrally, at least to some extent; but the decisions about the "details" which things should be taught and required and how should be left to the "local experts", I think. If a professor of Latin American studies argues that it is very important for a student to travel to all possible continents or participate in an international experience, one must say that he has no idea what it means to study other fields except for his own.

An international experience plays a completely negligible role for a physicist - especially the U.S. physicist - in comparison with experience with mathematics, and it would be very bad if people who don't understand this point were deciding about the physics curriculum.

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