A Bite at the Core


To the Editors of The Crimson:

The passage of the "Core" curriculum proposal is no cause for dancing in the aisles of Widener, or anywhere else, for that matter.

In retrospect, it seems that discussion of the "Core" was hindered from the start by an important though not surprising flaw. The specific problems of Harvard undergraduate education were not clearly distinguished from a) problems of American society and American education as a whole and b) philosophical questions of the role of education. While the latter questions and problems are of interest to the national newsmagazine editor desperate to find a few hundred interesting words to insert between the liquor ads, they cannot be solved by the Harvard Faculty and should not be addressed by its members collectively. What the individual members say in their capacity as citizens is of course completely different. In their capacity as Harvard Faculty members our professors should have spent much less time debating the relative merits of Hobbes and Goethe and far more time on concrete problems such as:

1) The arbitrary nature of student/faculty contact at Harvard, and in particular the pernicious but ongoing "get an A in my course, then get to know me better" syndrome.

2) The lack of adequate staff for many important courses. It is almost farcical that in many courses with large amounts of assigned reading, much of it by no means straightforward, there is no systematic chance for discussion of the material. Often, where sections do exist, they are tokens.

3) Overspecialization of courses. This problem is fortunately not so widespread as the first two. Although President Bok made an inexcusable blunder due to a lack of careful research and although he was wrong in stressing this problem above the others, he did have a valid point. In many areas, it seems that an energetic Harvard professor is one who teaches his next book while the lazy one teaches his last.

4)Creeping athleticism. All danger signs indicate that we have entered a phase of disproportionate emphasis on varsity athletics at Harvard. This is probably not wholly unrelated to the upcoming gargantuan fund drive. Still, the Faculty should speak out in the strongest possible terms against such tendencies.

5)Creeping professionalism. This is not the place to address the question of the desireability, from the standpoint of Harvard or from the standpoint of the American government, of the new improved version of the Business School for bureaucrats. Still, even if budgets do not overlap, it should be clearly recognized that the present administration's preoccupation with the Kennedy School represents a spiritual commitment to areas tangential not only to undergraduate education but also to most areas of graduate education within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

This is what the Faculty should be talking about. Solving a few of these problems would serve the interests of undergraduate education far more than the composition of ten thousand new rules and regulations. But ethereal contemplation followed by bickering over the elegance of brand new schemes and systems is more fun and much easier than grappling with reality.

In conclusion it should be emphasized that Dean Rosovsky's basic concern is justified. It is certainly true that in the face of increasing cultural uniformity and blandness, brought on by the media's preoccupation with dredging ever deeper in search of the lowest common denominator (we may soon bottom out at absolute zero), we are losing a common intellectual basis. It is certainly true that in planning an education, we should take into account not only what we need to know, but also what we should know. Moreover, it is clear that the steady deterioration of American secondary education, public and private, places a larger burden today than ever before on the college to provide students with the opportunity of acquiring an adequate general education.

The problem is, while the college must provide the opportunity, it cannot and should not force anyone to be open minded. Attempts to do so may very well turn out to be counter-productive, as students become alienated not so much by the specifics of any rule (most academic regulations are more or less inane on principle) but rather by the idea that they are being told what to do. The Faculty should have more confidence than it apparently does in the innate intellectual curiosity of most of its students. For as they well know, no bee will produce much honey on command (true, Mozart could write operas in this fashion but he was something of an exception), but if left to its own devices, the bee can produce quite remarkable results. --David H. Peipers '78