As a new system of General Education makes its way through Faculty discussions and debates, with a vote on legislation possible as early as this spring, the demise of the oft-maligned Core Curriculum lies on the not-so-distant horizon.
But for current undergraduates—from seniors to underclassmen—that horizon is just out of reach, and the Core is still very much a fact of life.
“People do realize that students will be under the Core requirements [for some time].... The Faculty debates that are going on are about the future, but students are under a requirement now,” says Susan W. Lewis, the director of the Core Program.
But for many, the Core’s restrictions are unwelcome.
“Most of the time it feels like you’re choosing which class you’re least likely to hate (or fail) instead of something you actually want to learn about. That’s not to say that all core classes aren’t interesting, but more options would be great,” writes Tatiana K. Wilson ’09, an African and African American Studies concentrator in Quincy House, in an e-mail.
In an attempt to make the process of completing Core requirements less restrictive, the Standing Committee on the Core has worked since the late 1990s to approve suitable courses as Core substitutes on the basis of petition. Last spring, a total of 22 departmental courses—including 12 history courses—were approved as Core bypasses, and another eight courses being taught this fall, including four Humanities courses, were approved as bypasses after the year began.
Lewis stresses that petitions can come from a variety of sources, including students dissatisfied with the Core classes available to them.
“Courses come to Core committees in a variety of different ways—sometimes a faculty member, sometimes a student will come to the Core office with an inquiry,” says Lewis. “Slightly more have come in because a faculty member requested it, but many student requests have come in as well.”
THE ART OF THE BYPASS
While many non-Core classes are approved as Core bypasses months before they are taught, there was a rush this fall to approve new courses already underway.
Rosen Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies Kofi Agawu, who teaches African and African American Studies 175, “Introduction to African Music,” says that a number of students who signed up for his course “wondered if the course would count as a Core.”
Students soon contacted the Core office to request that the course be considered as a bypass for Literature and Arts B, though Agawu, who transferred to Harvard from Princeton this year, jokes, “I did all the work.” The petition was approved within a few weeks.
According to Agawu, African and African American Studies 175 speaks to the philosophy of the Core by introducing students to African music in light of other disciplines.
“The focus on music and musical experience radiates outwards into other areas of intellectual inquiry. For instance, I spend a few lectures talking about the importance of language in music. The place of music in daily life—that broaches the anthropological sphere. Then we talk about popular music as social commentary, and by the end of the class we will be talking appropriation of African music,” Agawu says.
Students say successful bypass petitions allow them to study a wider range of topics in a given field than they could under the Core alone.
African and African American Studies 175, according to Elisabeth Y. Ndour ’08, is “one way of expanding the core along international lines... I do not see why there should be a Core course on Bach, but not on African music.”
“Harvard is diverse enough that we can’t get stuck on one canon of music or literature,” says Ndour.
Humanities 14, “Existentialism in Literature and Film,” was also approved for credit as a Moral Reasoning Core bypass this semester.
The course’s instructor, Professor of Philosophy Sean D. Kelly, says he thought his humanities course was approved as a Moral Reasoning bypass because it “is different from a straight English course.”
“Even though right now we are spending a lot of time reading Dostoyevsky, many of the other readings are philosophical works,” he says.
Beyond Humanities 14, a number of other new Humanities courses—Humanities 10, “An Introductory Humanities Colloquium,” Humanities 12, “‘Strange Mutations’: Classical and Renaissance Representations of the Human Condition,” and Humanities 16, “Existential Fictions: From Saint Augustine to Jean-Paul Sartre and Beyond”—were approved this semester during shopping period as Literature and Arts A bypasses.
Two English courses, English 17x: “19th Century American Novel” and English 166x: “The Postcolonial Classic” were approved this fall as Literature and Arts A bypasses, and African and African American Studies 20: “Introduction to African Languages and Cultures” was approved as a Foreign Cultures bypass.
A GROWING PROCESS
On May 20, 1997, legislation creating a systematic process for evaluating department courses for potential Core credit was approved by a Faculty vote.
Prior to 1997, Lewis says, there was no systematic petition and approval system in Core areas outside of the sciences. The decision to implement the evaluation process to broaden the scope of the Core was a result of a two-year review of the core in 1995-1997, according to Lewis.
After the legislation was approved in 1997, it took a few years for the approval process to become fully operational.
“People had to be contacted. It took a while to develop,” says Lewis, who has worked in the Core office since 1987.
In recent years, Core bypass petitions have flowed into the Core office from a variety of departments.
“Every semester, about five courses come to every [Core] area committee, but it’s much more random than that. It’s not evenly distributed area to area or year to year,” says Lewis, who calls the 12 history courses approved this past spring “a kind of bulge.”
And Lewis adds that an implication of expanding the Core to include departmental courses is the fact that departmental courses with prerequisites can be approved to count for Core credit.
Such courses, according to Lewis, “may not necessarily be designed for a general audience... A course may presume more background than students who do not have college-level background in something may have. For example, in quantum mechanics or organic chemistry—you’d clearly need background in those fields on the college level.”
Under the current system, each Core bypass application goes through two rounds of inspection—first by a faculty-student committee within the department that offers the course, and then by the relevant subcommittee of the Core Standing Committee, which determines whether the class meets the requirements set forth for the particular field.
Sometimes, however, top Harvard administrators get involved in the process to speed things along.
In September, Interim Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles and Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 were “made aware of the fact that most of the new Humanities general education courses had not, in fact, been considered by the relevant Core sub-committees (nor the Core Standing Committee) last spring, as candidate courses for Core ‘bypass,’” Knowles wrote late that month.
Knowles and Gross quickly approved Humanities 10, 12, and 16 as bypasses, “[r]ather than leave both the faculty teaching these courses, and the students wanting to take them, in the dark until the relevant committees had met,” he wrote.
With a new system of General Education still years from implementation, some students stress that departments and the Core office should continue to work towards broadening the number of available Core bypasses.
“If more departmental courses were offered as core [bypasses], then there’s a greater chance that a student will find a new interest and take more classes in that department,” writes Wilson.