Core Curriculum Gets a Makeover

Rosovsky’s brainchild is still changing with the times

When the students, faculty, and administrators of 1980 worked to refine the definition of a liberal arts education, they did so while struggling with many of the same battles Harvard is facing during today’s Curricular Review—only the third-ever in its history.

The brainchild of then-Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky, the Core was officially established in 1978 and as it evolved, administrators continued to pound out their vision—in what a May 16, 1979 New York Times article called “a radical departure from established methods of undergraduate education.”

This vision involved a switch—the curriculum would now teach “modes of inquiry,” rather than a particular canon of facts.

Rosovsky stressed that the shift was meant to help students cope with overwhelming amounts of information.

But the difficulty of transforming Harvard’s approach to learning led then-University President Derek C. Bok to tell the Washington Post in September, 1979 that “changing undergraduate education is like trying to move a graveyard.”

Though acceptance grew with time, faculty and students of 1980 were asking more detailed questions about the practical applications of the Core—and bringing various concerns to the table.

Students worried about the number of courses they would be required to take. Faculty wondered how to craft new curricula aligned with Harvard’s fresh approach to education. Administrators struggled to modify requirements to accommodate Advanced Standing students.

These continued deliberations led to unexpected changes in the Core requirements.

Placing a strong emphasis on the sciences, the Standing Committee on the Core Curriculum approved a measure in February, 1980 requiring that physical sciences concentrators be required to take a Core course in the biological sciences—raising the number of required courses for physical science concentrators to nine.

Proposals were also made to require nine courses for concentrators in Visual and Environmental Studies and Philosophy, among others.

These changes contradicted the Committee’s November promise to cap Core requirements at eight for all students.

And while the 1978 proposal outlined 10 Core areas, by the 1979-1980 academic year, six main areas were chosen—Literature and Arts, Historical Study, Social Analysis, Moral Reasoning, Science, and Foreign Cultures.

National hype surrounding the Core curriculum eventually enticed professors to design courses which fit Harvard’s new approach to education. But many faculty members still shied away from teaching courses designed for non-concentrators, students termed “the ignorant masses,” in a Sept. 14, 1979 article from The Crimson.

However, by 1980, 50 Core courses were offered in the six delineated areas, prompting Rosovsky to call the program “the greatest injection of new courses in Harvard’s history,” in an article published in The Crimson June 5, 1980.

More than 25 years after the birth of the Core, students are now seeing a rejection of the “modes of inquiry” approach to education that typified the 1978 concept of a liberal arts education. Instead, Harvard is returning to its more traditional pre-Core roots. That today’s Harvard College Curricular Review calls to replace the Core’s fragmented approaches to learning illustrates the the perennial problem of balancing academic guidance with academic freedom.

—Staff writer Allison A. Frost can be reached at afrost@fas.harvard.edu.