The Core Through a Microscope

Raw deals abound when science concentrators confront course requirements

This year presents a golden opportunity to address the deficiencies of the current Core Curriculum. With the first major review of the undergraduate curriculum in three decades, it’s time to look at Harvard’s educational philosophy and determine whether the existing program lives up to its ideals.

Exposing students to a variety of fields remains a critical part of a liberal arts education, so there’s no question that some requirements are necessary. Indeed, the goal of the College is not to produce one-dimensional graduates. But countering one-dimensionality is the very reason the structure of the Core needs to be reformed: A whole spectrum of classes not currently included in the Core should be—that is, if Harvard is dedicated to presenting the most valuable options to all of its students.

The Core hits science concentrators especially hard. The current system discourages them from pursuing other interests, especially during their first year when it is most vital. Harvard floods science and math concentrators with a sea of requirements. Introductory classes like multivariable calculus and organic chemistry follow fixed multiple-semester sequences. On top of that, students face Core, Expos and language requirements. All these constraints mean that electives are at a premium during their years at Harvard.

These immense demands take their greatest toll during the first year, preventing likely science concentrators from even considering other options. First-years often fulfill Expos and language requirements in addition to taking foundational courses in math, physics, chemistry and related fields. Virtually all of these courses fulfill Core requirements in the sciences, so humanities and social science concentrators at least have some opportunities to explore them. But the tough reality for science concentrators is that the inflexibilities of the Core close off other concentration possibilities too early.

To explore concentrations in other areas, first-year scientists are forced to forfeit scarce electives, since most introductory courses in the social sciences and humanities lie outside the Core Curriculum. Not a single government course and only a small handful of English and history courses satisfy Core requirements. In contrast, with the closer integration of the Core with science departments, prospective humanities and social science concentrators can more easily fulfill Core demands while investigating alternative concentrations.

For example, a history concentrator who took calculus simply to try out a math course would not have to take a redundant Quantitative Reasoning Core. Other Core areas are woefully behind in this regard: a veteran of Government 10, “Introduction to Political Thought,” who concentrates in chemistry still has to fulfill the Moral Reasoning requirement. Seventeen courses outside the Core fulfill Science A, but only one fulfills Historical Study A.

As the curricular review unfolds, many avenues are available to the administration to take the cost out of students’ curiosity in other fields of concentration. Administrators could increase the number of departmental classes that provide Core credit, ensuring that Core offerings in the humanities and social sciences are at least as numerous as those in the sciences. Or they could replace the current Core Curriculum with broad distributional requirements, like the system that works so well at Yale and Princeton. For example, all courses at Yale fall under four main groups, and students take 12 courses in the three groups outside their major, a minimum of three in each. Either way, students’ ability to explore new ideas and seek a more complete education would not be compromised by Core requirements that haven’t lived up to their original purpose.

Hersh Sagreiya ’07, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.