Cutting to the Core

The College needs an interim Gen Ed plan for current students

At this point, the College freely concedes that the system of general education at Harvard—The Core Curriculum—is a broken system, one originating with noble intentions and a reasonable theoretical premise that never quite worked in practice.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes. Well, it’s “broke.” While the saying doesn’t provide a time-table, I would argue sooner is better than later.

As it stands, the College is going to fix the Core at some point, though it isn’t exactly clear when. The Curricular Review Process has been long, and, considering the resources and energy dedicated to it, unexpectedly fruitless. The “Red Book”—which spawned the legendary General Education program—was begun at the outset of World War II and was completed in 1945, and it had long-lasting effects on higher education the world over. The Core Curriculum began development in 1974, and was adopted by the Faculty in 1978. It has had long-lasting effects—something like a bad aftertaste—at Harvard, and maybe Harvard alone. Finally, 2005’s Curricular Review report—the first real product from a process initiated in 2002—has changed essentially nothing.

Notice that the Red Book took about four years to produce, as did the Core. We’re on year three of Harvard’s latest curricular revision, and no one knows what a Harvard College Course is, or what makes it truly different from anything else. There are no earth-shattering ideas, no revolutionary pedagogy. There’s a group of professors sneaking around called the “Gang of Five” writing reports and not officially releasing them. I’m still taking Cores.

I’m not saying that we should rush the review just to create a program that keeps me from having to take Foreign Cultures 85 (“Japan Pop! From Bashô to Banana”), or that we even could rush such a delicate and thoughtful process if we wanted to. Neither is it to say that earth-shattering ideas and revolutionary pedagogy won’t come in their time. But where the College implicitly acknowledges that the Core isn’t providing the general education that ought to come with a Harvard degree, and none of us will see the new program before we receive that degree, the College needs to come up with a contingency plan. It’s as if the College is a train conductor who receives word that the rail bridge up ahead has collapsed, but rather than switching tracks, decides to ride full-speed-ahead over the edge, warning other trains by radio on the way down into the fiery abyss. Well, maybe not exactly like that, but something like that anyway.

It wouldn’t be especially difficult to find a way to dodge the aforementioned fiery abyss, either. Where the Review has decided that there should be fewer required areas in our Ged Ed—three according to the working “Gang of Five” report, only two required, for a total of six or four half-courses, depending on the courses—it wouldn’t be unreasonable to cut the required number of Core courses for each undergrad to five. The College could encourage professors to devise pilot courses now, with the ideals of the new curriculum in mind, and test them out as Cores. The College could even put an interim distribution requirement in place to encourage current students to get their Gen Ed directly from departments’ introductory courses, and perhaps offer separate sections for concentrators and non-concentrators, and even different assignments for different credit. With some flexibility, we could see some benefit from the Review today, instead of years down the line.

I haven’t had an especially bad experience in the Core, but I get the impression that I’ve been lucky compared to some other students. We only get eight semesters here at Harvard, and most of us have already spent a few dragging ourselves through the Core. The College is taking a big step in looking at the Core’s failings and working to correct them—I only hope they can find a way to correct them while I’m still here.

Peter C. D. Mulcahy ’07 , a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Cabot House.