Last month, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III said reforming the Core Curriculum will be the largest task facing incoming Dean of the college Harry R. Lewis '68. We hope that Lewis will take advantage of this opportunity to heal one of the College's greatest ills.
The Core curriculum is one of the one experiences common to all undergraduates at Harvard. Ask any student which courses he or she plans to take in a given semester, and the answer will invariably end, "and a Core." this response encapsulates the core's problem; through its mediocrity and lack of a unifying vision, it has become an academic afterthought.
When the Core Curriculum was organized in 1977, it carried two major purposes: to educate students in a broad range of areas and to promote a new and analytical way of thinking. First of all, the Core should have had one other goal: to make sure that its broad-based education truly represented the quality and rigor of all courses at the college.
Core courses are commonly--and often rightfully--regarded as watered-down versions of regular, departmental courses in the same disciplines. Even courses that purport to focus intensely on a single period of time or area of academic theory gloss over the rigor inherent in true study. Cores are seen as "guts" in many cases--lackadaisical breaks from an otherwise profound education. Students should not be given the obligation or the opportunity to take courses that do not measure up to departmental standards.
The Core has also failed in its two stated goals. Even if each student were educated in a broad range of areas, students as a whole are not. when half the College takes "Ec 10" or "Justice" to fulfill Core requirements, the graduating class can hardly be called diverse. When, as happened last fall, only one course is offered in English in a given Core area, the precepts of the Core are stretched even more.
Moreover, students can still erode the diversity of their education significantly within existing Core areas. Consider the following set of courses: "Tiananmen Square," "Chinese family, marriage, and Kinship: A Century of Change," "Tradition and Transformation in East Asian Civilization: China," "The Emergence of Complex Society in Ancient China," "Ancient Chinese Art and Religion," "Cultural China and contemporary perspectives" and "Confucian Humanism: Self-Cultivation and Moral Community. "These courses together fill seven (of a possible ten) different Core areas, but no one could call the total a part of a broad education.
There is no question that students can and should take advantage of the Core for a broad education. But the Core itself presents too many obstacles to this goal.
The Core's second goal, and perhaps the one which students need the most help achieving, is the development of a unique and useful approach to learning. Any such unifying thread has long since disappeared from the Core. Do Science A and Historical Study B professors meet with each other to coordinate their teaching methods? never. What little oversight the Committee on the core Program (CCP) offers is rarely directed to amalgamating methods in the search for knowledge.
In addition, the Core does not include certain courses because they supposedly do not meet the 'approach to knowledge' criterion. This year, History 10, a year-long survey of Western civilization, was not allowed into the Core because it did not precisely fit the description of Historical Study A or B. A persnickety distinction such as this is a ridiculous reason to discourage students from studying western civilization as a fundamental part of their education.
At its inception, the Core had a commitment to contribute something new and good to the fundamental structure of students' education. That commitment has entirely evaporated. A harbinger of this eventuality came this year on the Committee on Undergraduate Education's questionnaires, so often used by students to evaluate Core Courses. the ubiquitous orange sheets dropped the question which asked, "Did this course enhance your ability to think analytically.?"
The Core needs either to undergo a complete reformation that includes specific programs directed towards analytical thinking or to be scrapped entirely. We believe that the second possibility is far more plausible. Finding and pursuing a uniform vision of analytical thinking could certainly help students, but how could so many professors be forced to conform to such an ideal? Those who tech well and help students to think do so without any goading or instruction from the CCP.
A change to a system of distributional requirements is a more realistic alternative. With an almost unlimited field of departmental courses--divided into Core areas--from which to choose, students could never complain for a lack of diversity. In addition, students would be exposed to the company of concentrators in the various fields, creating a truly rigorous atmosphere for study. Even those students lusting after survey courses in history and philosophy could be satisfied by introductory departmental offerings.
Proof of the effectiveness of this system already exists, since some departmental science courses can substitute for Cores. Many students opt out of Science a and B in favor of biology, physics or chemistry. The fact is that many science Cores could not survive as departmental courses. We must ask ourselves why these courses, unworthy of regular curricula , exist at all.
If core courses were abandoned in favor of distributional requirements, only those that met departmental criteria could continue to exist. Under this regime, students who stayed with the often-flimsy science Cores would receive the advantage of some real scientific theory, rather than simple general knowledge. The same would occur in all the other Core areas.
We trust that, as dean, Lewis will realize that the Core has failed the College's students. with years of leadership ahead of him, Lewis can embark upon a new course towards broader education. We hope that he will have the courage to revolutionize the Core as part of this process.