Getting Back to the Core

Faculty gears up for first full-scale curricular reform in decades

To the almost 90 percent of applicants who were denied admission to the College last year, it seems almost absurd to suggest that Harvard has low standards.

Likewise, to the hundreds of companies that recruited graduates on campus this year, it seems equally absurd to suggest that Harvard’s curriculum is not top-notch.

But in a year dominated by media coverage of Harvard’s grade inflation problems and as it gears up for a massive curricular review, many are wondering if and where Harvard falls short of its peers.

Beyond that, some faculty question whether Harvard is living up to its role as a leader in higher education.

“Harvard should be doing much more radical and risky things given our resources,” says Professor of Psychology Marc D. Hauser. “Yes, these things might fail, but if they succeed, that would be awesome.”

“It is sometimes easier to rely on the brilliance of your student body and faculty to carry things along than to generate consensus for change,” says Associate Dean of Yale College Penelope Lauran.

That Harvard needs to change is not up for debate—the debate comes over where, when and by how much.

For now, the critics have zeroed in on reforming the much-vaunted Core Curriculum and questioning Harvard’s commitment to up-and-coming intellectual fields.

Hard ‘Core’ Reform

Roughly once a generation Harvard’s curriculum undergoes a massive overhaul. President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1868, instituted the elective system during the late nineteenth century; President A. Lawrence Lowell started the modern incarnation of distribution requirements soon after he entered office in the 1909.

By the time President Derek C. Bok and Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky took office, the Lowell curriculum had grown stale.

“Over that long a period people drifted away from undergraduate teaching, [and] the sense of common purpose behind the curriculum was forgotten,” Bok says.

The Core, intended to increase student-faculty interaction and teach students different approaches to knowledge, has stood as a national model for 30 years since its inception in 1974.

Now, even its founders question its continued presence in undergraduate education—and with a new dean of the Faculty taking over this summer, the University is looking at its first full-scale curriculum review since the Nixon administration.

“People lose sight of the original purpose,” Bok says. “The point is renewal—to go through an intellectual enterprise with the rest of the Faculty.”

Students have long faulted the Core for its bureacuracy and lack of flexability and choice.