The Core Must Go

Restrictive Core Program must be replaced with flexible distribution requirement

This week, Harvard’s seniors will be welcomed by President Neil L. Rudenstine into the “company of educated men and women.” This welcome, repeated at every Commencement, presents a vision of college education that is universal and shared, where values and approaches are held in common across the disciplines. Yet Harvard’s central tool for shaping undergraduate education, the Core Program, has for years failed at its goal of introducing students to these shared values and to the various “approaches to knowledge” that education offers. The Core unnecessarily restricts students’ choice in shaping their academic careers and diminishes the quality of the education for which they have paid. It should be abolished and replaced by a distribution requirement, so that future classes will not be similarly shortchanged.

The philosophy of the Core Program—that students should encounter a variety of approaches to knowledge rather than be forced to master a specific body of knowledge—is sound. But it is impossible to see the substance of the current Core Program as the program sees itself, namely as “an attempt to say what it means to be educated today.” Rather than teach approaches to knowledge by example, requiring students to take classes in the various disciplines, the Core sets apart a few courses from the rest and declares that of all the courses in the discipline, only these are effective enough in delivering an approach to knowledge.

The paltry number of offerings in several Core areas makes course selection overly arduous for undergraduates. A recent report to the Undergraduate Council found that the Faculty’s 1997 mandate of 12 non-cross-listed courses per Core area had been met in only one of the 12 areas of the Core—namely Foreign Cultures, where four of the 14 courses taught this past year required fluency in French. The newest Core area, Quantitative Reasoning, offered students only six courses from which to choose.

The Core Committee does not seem to have recognized that students should be allowed to choose among the widest possible array of acceptable courses; its website still reads that Core offerings are “deliberately limited to 10 to 12 courses each year”—for what reason, one can only guess.

This shortage cannot be justified on educational grounds. The Core area of Literature & Arts B, which seeks to “introduce students to a non-literary form of expression” in music or the arts, offered only 10 courses this past year and does not grant credit to a single departmental course. We refuse to believe that these 10 are the only courses at Harvard to expose students to a non-literary approach to knowledge, yet these are the only ones that the Core will recognize.

Defenders of the Core Program have justified these restrictions by arguing that Core courses are carefully reviewed to ensure consistency in grading and to avoid forcing students into classes with substantial prerequisite knowledge. Yet the workload and grading patterns of “International Conflict and Cooperation” and “First Nights” show a world of difference, and as far as prerequisite knowledge goes, in case the Core Committee has not yet noticed, several Foreign Cultures classes are conducted in a foreign language. In any case, students should be free to forgo these benefits in exchange for a course that is truly worthwhile, unlike the many watered-down Core classes that offer what the Core Committee believes to be a “manageable quantity of knowledge.” The persistence of the Core’s “one from Column A” mentality suggests that concern for bureaucratic convenience has trumped any deep commitment to the educational philosophy that the Core is intended to espouse.

The endemic shortage of courses created by such arbitrary restrictions has caused Core class sizes to balloon; it has also created a vicious cycle, as professors shy away from teaching new Cores or cross-listing their courses for fear that class size will suddenly explode. The eight-course requirement expects that each student will take, on average, one Core class per term; with an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 6,400 students, several of Harvard’s Core areas must expect an average of more than 100 students per class.

These large classes hinder the learning process and force students to spend one-quarter of their time at the College in largely impersonal, unproductive courses. They also tend to push students away from stimulating subjects; when only three or four courses that fulfill a particular Core requirement are offered in a term, students are often forced to pick a class that fits more conveniently into their schedules rather than one that truly interests them. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most Core classes are taught in prime lecture slots; frequently, a student will have no choice at all in deciding which Core to take due to scheduling constraints. Harvard has the luxury of allowing course choices to be determined by something other than the constraints of the schedule.

A further absurdity of the current system is that the Core forces students to enroll in courses for which they are overqualified if more advanced classes are not on the list. To earn a foreign language citation, for example, a student must complete at least four half-courses in a language, three of which are upper-level. These courses are often historical or literary and delve into issues of culture to a far greater extent than a Foreign Cultures Core; yet a foreign language citation does not fulfill the requirement, and students hoping to graduate are often forced to take less meaningful courses in order to meet the Core’s arbitrary regulations.

Over the course of this year, the Standing Committee on the Core Program has approved several small additions to the Core, slightly expanding the Core offerings as well as the number of departmental courses that can be taken for Core credit. A significant expansion of the number of courses that qualify for Core credit could take some pressure off the system, and the English department especially deserves to be commended for its efforts to expand students’ options.

But tinkering around the edges with the Core curriculum is only a short-term answer; a serious and permanent overhaul is needed. A distribution requirement would serve the same purpose of exposing students to new approaches to knowledge without arbitrarily limiting their choices. Rather than pick from an ever-shrinking list of special courses, students should be allowed to choose any departmental course that involves one of the recognized approaches to knowledge. In this way, students would be exposed to many different types of thought in an equally rigorous setting without the constraints of a restrictive Core.

The inadequacy of the Core remains one of the most pressing and visible problems with undergraduate education at the College. President-elect Lawrence H. Summers has expressed a commitment to improving undergraduate education during his term; he should recognize that any plan to improve education at the College must include significant Core reform. The Core has not accomplished its mission of broadly educating Harvard’s students, and it must be replaced.