From Core to Course

To Dean Rosovsky, "the issue" of the Core Curriculum is "are these good courses--do they accomplish the educational purposes for which they were designed? That's a very subtle question." It is also one that students, faculty and administrators could begin to answer this year as the Core moved from the drawing boards into the classrooms.

As any high school teacher will tell you, a point is always more forcefully made when concrete examples back it up. The 50 Core courses offered this year (the course catalogue listed 35 more to be given next year) provided the specifics from which students and faculty could judge how the lofty educational theories of the Core were put into practice.

In most cases, judgements were no more harsh or mild than those accorded non-Core courses. Students derided or praised Core courses for the same reasons they do any others--quality of the professor, sections, workload and the nature of the material presented. Few viewed Core courses as anything all that revolutionary in and of themselves: Literature and Arts A-12, "Great Novels of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries," discussed great novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries; and Historical Study B-56, "The Russian Revolution," examined the Russian revolution. No surprises.

But, notes Rosovsky, the classes themselves never were expected to offer anything particularly special. "A course is a course," he says, adding that "students may have exaggerated expectations. They come in and expect that a Core course will be very novel. These will be courses, but they've got to be very good courses."

What, then--if not the subject matter of the courses or the way in which they are taught--makes the Core Curriculum unique in the academic world? Talking in terms of theory, Rosovsky cites three main features: the program's "totality," the underlying purpose of the courses and the careful screening to which every Core course was subjected.

The Core's six main divisions--Literature and Arts, Historical Study, Social Analysis, Moral Reasoning, Science and Foreign Cultures--from which students will be required to take eight half courses when the Core becomes fully effective for the Class of '86, form an "educational experience" when viewed as a whole, Rosovsky says.

Because they are designed for non-concentrators, the courses comprising that educational experience have what Rosovsky calls a "special educational challenge." They tackle a subject at a rigorous level, Rosovsky explains, but for people who take the course for liberal education, not people who are necessarily interested in acquiring an in-depth knowledge of a particular topic.

Otto T. Solbrig, professor of Biology and chairman of the Core subcommittee on Science, agrees with Rosovsky's holistic approach. "Philosophically, the totality of the program is the issue, but it is debatable whether that is educationally valid--I think it is," he says, adding, "There are certain things an educated person needs to know, and the Core is an introduction."

A second distinguishing characteristic of the Core, Rosovsky says, is an underlying emphasis in the courses on "modes of inquiry" into areas of knowledge. "The important thing is not for students to learn certain facts--though it's important to have a factual background--but to understand how various areas, disciplines and approaches deal with the world. I think that's really the common denominator," Rosovsky says.

Such an understanding of approaches is important, Rosovsky believes, because the fast-paced growth of information continually alters and invalidates a once-acceptable body of knowledge. He cites Social Analysis as an example, noting that the important thing is not to study economics in particular, but to gain an understanding of how a social scientist deals with the world. "If you can understand that," he explains, "you can direct your own interests more effectively, and you can probably learn a good deal yourself in or out of school."

The third special feature of the Core--and probably the most significant--to which Rosovsky points is that the Core's five subcommittees and standing committee subject prospective courses to a rigorous review before the classes make their way into the curriculum. "These courses have really been looked at very carefully before they were approved. We debated a great many of these courses. We asked for changes. All of these are very unusual things for anyone to do at Harvard," Rosovsky says.

The notion of reviewing courses with a specific set of guidelines in mind before approving them is a departure from normal Harvard procedure. Part of the problem with the General Education program was that the committees governing it could not say no to their colleagues who wanted to offer courses, says Glen W. Bowersock '57, associate dean of the Faculty for undergraduate education. The Core, observes Solbrig, has higher standards.

The concept of a rigorous review of Core courses was so unheard of that Rosovsky was prompted to comment at length on it in his report to the Faculty and students on the Core released in May 1979:

Courses taught by members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences are not normally subject to this kind of scrutiny, and the Faculty members themselves are not accustomed to rigorous review by colleagues. One potential Core course head, after his proposal was returned for a third revision to bring it in accord with his guidelines, raised, not without pique, a question of academic freedom. The answer, of course, was that he was quite free to offer his course under other auspices, but the Core committees were bound by the ground rules of the Core Curriculum. Once this was understood, the Standing Committee on the Core had escaped the dilemma faced by the Committee on on, i.e., how to avoid accepting courses randomly, without a clear rationale for acceptance or rejection. This is what the Faculty legislation had mandated. This is what we set out to do.

And that's what the committees did--seemingly with a vengeance. Bowersock describes the review process as "fierce--so much so that some colleagues have been amazed at having courses turned down." Rarely did the standing committee, which has the final say on which courses make the Core and which do not, hold a meeting during the past year without rejecting a course or sending it back to the instructor for clarification or revision, Bowersock adds.

Walter Jackson Bate '39, Lowell Professor of the Humanities and chairman of the Core subcommittee on Literature and the Arts, thinks the standing committee in the past has been "awfully strict and literal" in its interpretation and enforcement of the Core guidelines. However, he says that now, since the standing committee has approved nearly 100 courses, it may loosen up. "The subcommittees are being encouraged to widen the variety and types of courses they recommend. Now we're taking the wraps off, and it's about time," he says, adding that he can envision the Core soon including broader, survey-type courses as a supplement to what is already there.

To the three structure-related characteristics which Rosovsky cites as unique to the Core, the dean adds another distinguishing feature. "Hopefully, they are also set apart by the fact that they are quality courses," he says, adding, "But there, you win some and you lose some. I still think that the effort made to make them high quality courses is greater than in the average course."

Bowersock looks on that higher quality characteristic as the most important: "I don't think any curriculum can stand on theory--what matters is that the theory is backed up by solid teaching." In Bowersock's case, it was. For his Historical Study B-11, "The Christianization of the Roman World,"--which, Bowersock says, he would not have developed if not for the Core--he spent months poring over primary sources, ultimately compiling enough research to fill an 800-page volume he used in the class. "It was a wonderful experience, and I think from the responses of students that they enjoyed it too," says Bowersock, who will not offer the course again because he is leaving Harvard this summer for the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

While he rejects theory for theory's sake, Bowersock says he sees benefit in the theoretical basis for the Core's structure because it encourages professor to rethink what they are teaching. "You can't just walk up to a professor and tell him to develop a course--you need a structure to provide the impetus," he explains.

Although one year is not a sufficient length of time to judge the revitalizing effects of the Core, "I think a lot of people are very enthused about their own teaching--people tell me that they're working on their Core courses and are interested in them. I think that's a very good sign," Rosovsky says. He adds that "it's obvious that the Faculty knows I'm interested in this, so they're more likely to talk to me about their Core courses than they are about their courses in molecular biology."

One of the reasons for Faculty enthusiasm over the Core, according to Bowersock, is that the program is "a prestige item--the place to be seen now is in the Core." Solbrig points especially to the Science courses as ones taught by some of Harvard's most renowned scholars--including Nobel Prize-winners Steven Weinberg, Higgins Professor of Physics, and Sheldon L. Glashow, professor of Physics.

Faculty legislation mandates that the Core undergo an extensive review in spring 1982. What that review turns up is anybody's guess, but for now, after one year of witnessing the Core in action, Rosovsky says he is encouraged, especially by the large number of courses developed specifically for the Core--about 70 per cent of those offered. He calls the program "the greatest injection of new courses in Harvard's history."

Based on that and the quality of professors teaching in the program, Rosovsky says, "I allow myself to hope that we have improved undergraduate education. I've always said curriculum is not the only issue in undergraduate education. I realize that very well. There are many other things, but this is one discrete part." Discrete, perhaps, but definitely the most prominently displayed.