Much Ado About Nothing

The Core's Central Problem Is a Lack of Survey Courses

In an often fractured and atomized campus, there are few shared academic institutions that transcend individual interests. The Core serves as a notable exception. It is in the huge Core classes that I, as a government concentrator, can meet Computer Science, History of Science and Folklore and Mythology majors. The shared experiences of Justice, Bible, Myth of America, and Ec 10 provide much needed links of community on this campus.

It is for this reason that the state of the Core is a subject that cannot be ignored. The time spent in Core classes represents one out of the four "best years of our lives." With this in mind, Harvard students deserve a better Core program then the one we are getting. The Core program was designed to move away from a "Great Books" type curriculum and instead focus on "major approaches to knowledge." It has succeeded in the former but failed in the latter.

Sitting in overheated, crowded lecture halls with a few hundreds of our closest friends, we are supposed to be learning how to see the forest and not the trees. Instead, like Little Red Riding Hood on her way to Granny's house, we usually find ourselves lost in the woods and pursued by the Big Bad Wolf of academic myopia. Looking at the individual tree, like Hindu Myth, Image and Pilgrimage (Literature and Arts C-18) or Jewish Life in Eastern Europe (Foreign Cultures 56,) certainly has its place. Yet, if the Core is to succumb to such overspecialization, it is even more important that the Core provide the general survey courses that serve as a necessary foundation to build upon.

In my first semester here at Harvard, I took Power and Society in Medieval Europe: The Crisis of the 12th Century (Historical Study B-17). I did well in the class and enjoyed it. Yet, even as a person who has a decent knowledge of European and Medieval History, I was often lost in lecture and I know that a lot of other students in the class felt the same way. If the class had used the twelfth century history of Flanders, Catalonia and England as a rubric through which to teach "major approaches to knowledge," that would have been one thing. But this class was just about the twelfth century history of Flanders, Catalonia and England. It was interesting. It has no business being in the Core curriculum.

The drive to keep the Core from being a "Great Books" program, commingled with the idea of intellectual relativism that pervades much of Harvard, has kept the Core, except for some notable exceptions, from giving Harvard students the building blocks they need for a successful academic career. What the Core needs are more survey courses.

Although few are willing to admit it in this day and age, there is a certain body of knowledge that all educated men and women should posses. Most of the people I know at Harvard, and I put myself first on this list, don't have anywhere near the same breadth of knowledge that our predecessors here would have had upon graduation.

Many students deride these survey courses as "cocktail party courses," implying that their only purpose is to give a thumbnail, Cliff Notes version of the particular subject. The charge is valid. It is important to have more than a shallow understanding of important subjects--but you have to start somewhere.

Courses like Ec 10 and Literature and Arts B-10, for all of their manifold problems (which I won't get into here), are at least on the right track. These courses give the foundations of an understanding of "major approaches to knowledge" in the particular field. The fact is that they are what we should see more of in the Core.

In my mind, there is no part of the Core that better exemplifies the problem of overspecialization and lack of board survey courses than the Historical Study A and B categories. This is particularly true when it comes down to American history. Of the 33 courses in both parts of Historical Study, a mere six deal with American history. Of these six, one has to count Medicine and Society in America (Historical Study A-34) and From Protestantism to Pluralism: Religion in America Since the Early 19th Century (Historical Study A-38) just to name two.

I am not saying that the knowledge presented in these courses is unimportant or that the courses should not be in the Core. What I am saying is that without a board knowledge of American history, the proper context is impossible to ascertain. Historical Study A-42 Will give you the history of Russia and Historical Study A-72 will give you the history of Western Europe, but you can search far and wide through the entire Core and never find a history of the United States.

If the problem were that everybody already knew American history, than a Core class might be superfluous. We aren't so lucky. Far too many Harvard students would be hard-pressed to distinguish between Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson. A 1992 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that only a small minority of Harvard undergraduates knew the answers to such simple questions as "Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?"

If Harvard is going to fulfill its mission of educating the active and informed citizen-leaders of the next century, it must do a better job of teaching us about our country's rich historical heritage. Placing an American history survey course into the Core would be placing a down payment on Harvard's future.

One of Harvard's stated goals is that students should know "a little about everything and a lot about something." Harvard certainly fulfills the latter criterion. It is not hard to find people here who know just about everything about computer cache algorithms, the industrial development of Upper Silesia or FK-506's binding to and subsequent inactivation of calcineurin. However, I fear that there is too little emphasis placed on developing the general body of knowledge that all educated men and women should posses. The place to remedy that is in the Core, and it should be done now.