Constructing the Core Curriculum

This year, the College finally released the results of its examination of the curriculum. In a report, the College recommended to abolish the Core—the cornerstone of Harvard’s curriculum—and replace it with the newly approved Harvard College Courses, a general distribution requirement.

This move appears to be a step back in time, as the style of Harvard education of the future seems to mimic the curriculum prior to 1978. In that year, the College overhauled its curriculum and decided to replace the General Education requirement with the Core Curriculum. On May 11, 1979, then-Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky released the course titles of 77 courses—60 percent of which were new—that would be included in the newly established Core.

“First of all, [the Core] does add...specific emphasis on ethical choice,” then-Harvard University President Derek C. Bok told The Crimson in 1979. “And two...there is the emphasis on quantitative skills, which...about the time I went to college, was perceived as something that scientists and engineers and maybe doctors might need but not the majority, and since then there’s been a pervasive impact of quantitative forms of reasoning.”

The Core was designed to gradually phase into the College curriculum over the three years. Students would eventually have to take courses in the five areas of the Core: Science, Literature and Arts, Historical Studies, Social Analysis and Moral Reasoning. The 77 original courses included instruction in 21 classes in Literature and Arts, the largest among the five areas, as well as physics, biology, astronomy and biochemistry—but no chemistry—in the Science category, the smallest area with only eight courses.

In deciding these courses of the Core and undertaking the curricular review in the 1970s, the College encountered similar issues of today’s review—the role of science in education, as well as the importance of student input as architects of the curriculum.


Starting from the 1940s, Harvard College operated under the General Education requirements in three basic fields—Social Sciences, Humanities and Natural Sciences.

But in the 1970s, a national trend emerged as many colleges began to revise general education curricula by tightening requirements and reevaluating academic goals.

Many critics believed that the waves of general education reform did not point towards anything progressive, and that the national flurry of reforms marked a swing of the pendulum back to the way curricula were before 1960s campus activists forced many university administrations to abolish or loosen course requirements.

Indeed, Rosovsky, when taking on the task of evaluating Harvard’s undergraduate education in 1973, said that his personal views of what a “proper” education is runs decidedly against the grain of liberalized reforms of the past decade.

In his October 1975 Letter to the Faculty on Undergraduate Education, Rosovsky maintained that “the problem today is that people have too many choices.”

In an extended analogy, Rosovsky described how the Harvard curriculum was too varied for undergraduates to make intelligent decisions about their education:

“Our curriculum at the moment resembles too much a Chinese menu—a very good menu. But I think that a Chinese menu in the hands of a novice can often result in less than a perfect meal. I would like to supply a few waiters,” he said.

And Rosovsky did supply his “waiters” that would guide student choice in their course selection. On May 2, 1978, the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences approved a new Core Curriculum for undergraduates, marking the end of four years of hard work, bargaining and cajoling for Rosovsky, and the beginning of the rocky road of actually planning, implementing and seeing the Core in action.


In October 1978, Rosovsky appointed nine Faculty members on the Core committee to represent a range of fields. While the Core had been approved, this committee was charged with designing the new curriculum.

The committee was made up of the chairs of seven Core subcommittees—one for each Core area of study, plus expository writing and the math requirement.

In addition, Paul C. Martin ’52, dean of the Division of Applied Sciences, and Edward L. Keenan ’57, associate dean of the Faculty, served as ex officio members; two students appointed by the Education Resources Group were non-voting members.

Many members of the committees were already veterans in the creation of the Core.

Shattuck Professor of Government James Q. Wilson chaired the original task force on the Core set up in 1975.

Bernard Bailyn, Winthrop professor of history and chair of the Historical Studies subcommittee, was influential in defining the five areas of study the Faculty eventually approved, and in designing the Historical Studies requirement.

Unlike most schools, Harvard had kept its General Education courses separate from its interdepartmental offerings, thereby avoiding many interdepartmental squabbles.

But even Harvard did not completely escape the problem of academic politics, which complicates general education reform.

Professor of Biology Otto T. Solbrig, the chair of the Mathematics and Science subcommittee, sponsored an amendment to the Core legislation which urged the committees to experiment with allowing students limited options to bypass Core courses with departmental offerings.

Solbrig, Lowell Professor of the Humanities Walter J. Bate and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Chair of the Expos subcommittee Glen W. Bowersock ’57 said that they strongly supported this bypass proposal and “floater” plan that would have allowed students to transfer one half-course of the Core requirement to another field of study.

Wilson expressed opposition to the bypass plan, warning that it might “convert a carefully conceived opportunity for flexibility into a generalized departmental bypass.”


Disagreement arose not only over Core policies, but over selection of Core courses as well. In this debate, science and African American studies took center stage.

While science was a major focus of the Core curriculum, some professors thought that the effort was not enough.

Solbrig said that he was “sympathetic” to the view of some science professors that the Core did not require enough science and mathematics.

Martin, who headed the Division of Applied Sciences, initially disapproved of the Core because it required so little science and thus might discourage “the better students” from attending Harvard.

The gap between science and humanities courses may have been influenced by funding for the Core.

Roughly $24 million out of the $250 million fundraising initiative in 1979 was dedicated to the establishment of the Core. Of that amount $1.25 million came from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Robert E. Kaufmann, associate dean for finances, said that the bulk of the grant would go toward enlarging the junior faculty, primarily in the humanities, to meet the special needs of the Core Curriculum.

The University specifically asked for funds to hire junior faculty in the humanities because the Mellon Foundation has traditionally supported instruction and research in humanities fields.

“We knew they had a long-standing interest in the humanities, so we tailored our proposal to fit their concerns,” Kaufmann said.

When the list of Core classes was released in 1979, it only included eight courses in the Science area.

The Department of African American Studies also complained of having too few courses in the Core.

Professor of Afro-American Studies Ewart Guinier ’33 said that the lack of Afro-American Studies courses in the proposed Core Curriculum “shows that the Core Curriculum is nothing but a publicity stunt for the fund drive the Faculty of Arts and Science will be starting next year.”

Guinier added that Harvard “isn’t preparing students to live in a world where four-fifths of the people are non-white.”

Rosovsky said Guinier’s accusation about the Core “is without foundation.”

When the final list of courses was released in May 1979, it included one Afro-American Studies class—a course on 20th century black literature—in the Literature and Arts area .

In planning the Core, the committee also attempted to recognize an increasingly globalized society—an effort that has again come to the forefront in this year’s curricular review.

“[There] is the emphasis on foreign cultures, which again I think reflects the fact that as late as World War II, when the Gen Ed program was introduced, we saw ourselves only temporarily involved in an international conflict, and it wasn’t until later that we saw that we were going to be increasingly and permanently involved in a more and more interdependent series of countries that made an emphasis in the Core Curriculum along these lines more necessary,” Bok said.


Throughout the development of the Core, hardly any student participation was allowed or encouraged.

Unlike several members of his staff and of the Faculty, Rosovsky said that he did not think “that students are in a position” to decide what their educational priorities should be.

Although two students did sit on the Standing committee and each subcommittee, these students had non-voting status.

Rosovsky argued that the status was meaningless because the committees rarely took formal votes, and he never intended for these students to serve as representatives.

“This isn’t a matter of democracy. These students aren’t holding a political office,” he said. “They are there to provide student input.”

Furthermore, the student members were not permitted to discuss any aspects of the proposed courses with fellow undergraduates.

Maxime S. Pfeffer ’81, one of the student members on the standing committee, said that the committee rules imposed restraints that continually handicapped her ability to serve as an effective delegate.

“It’s so frustrating when you can’t communicate any information to your constituents. Our hands are tied,” she said.

Rosovsky countered, however, that making Core proposals public may endanger reputations. Confidentiality, he said, protects professors whose course suggestions the committee rejects.

Daniel T. Berman ’79, the second undergraduate on the standing committee, agreed that committee policy hindered his representative role.

“If there is one thing I have learned in the past year-and-a-half it’s that above all Faculty members hate to be embarrassed. You’ve got to indulge them so they don’t back out and just not offer the Core course,” he said.

—Staff writer Risheng Xu can be reached at