The Dungeon on Dunster Street

Liberate the curriculum from the Core Office

Last week, we ran into each other at a place that is supposed to guard a treasure more precious than Harvard’s endowment: the soul of its liberal arts education. The Core Office on Dunster Street, however, is far from this ideal. It is a bureaucratic black hole from which dissolves any semblance of coherence in the curriculum.

After two years in the English department, I—Emily—felt the need to switch concentrations to government. At the same time, Pier was inquiring about a new Humanities portal course and its potential to count for Core credit. The ability to make such choices was the primary reason both of us had chosen an American education over a British one, where applicants are compelled to fix their course of study before even being accepted to a particular university.

But at the Core Office, we quickly learned that an arrogant, inflexible bureaucracy could destroy any virtues the Core might have.

In my case, I now needed to fulfill a Literature and Arts C requirement which as an English concentrator, I was previously exempt from. However, none of my five English credits satisfied the advisors at the Core Office. They did not ask for any papers produced in the classes or even syllabi. Those things hardly matter, after all, when, according to their reasoning, the lack of a final exam was a mortal sin for any class wishing to fulfill a Core requirement.

Pier was not much luckier. Although the new Humanities courses had been touted by Dean of the Humanities Maria Tatar as examples of a new educational emphasis in breadth, at the beginning of shopping week, students were informed that these courses would currently count for nothing and that “no decision had been made” by the Core office. We would only get an answer later on in the semester, after having enrolled.

And how could it be otherwise? The Core Standing Committee meets only three or four times a semester. During the summer, while professors were working hard to produce syllabi for the new courses, the Core office had not started its procedures. Thankfully, we had administrators shrewd enough to bypass these inanities and eventually approve the Humanities courses by fiat. But the damage was already done: Many students did not even bother shopping those classes as they deemed it pointless to wait indefinitely for a decision.

According to the Student Handbook, the goal of the Core is to “broaden each student’s perspective.” Now perhaps, the Core Office must broaden its own perspective, which, after having been around for 24 years, should have evolved its practices to the point of accommodating common sense.

The most important thing is for the Core Office to be more flexible and stop making petty distinctions between classes. Why, after all, is English 151, “The 19th-Century Novel” somehow worthy of Core credit, while English 141, “The 18th-Century Novel,” is not? And it is absolutely baffling why a person who has taken five English literature classes must be compelled to do another in order to fulfill a requirement in Literature and Arts C, whatever that is.

Only a radical change at the Core Office can help the transition to better, broader requirements altogether. We look forward to the new report of the General Education Committee, which, we hope, will hopefully overthrow the tyranny of the Core.

Emily C. Ingram ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Eliot House.