Against The Core

THE FACULTY of Arts and Sciences' overwhelming vote on May 2 to approve the much-publicized Core Curriculum program will alter the basic shape of the "Harvard education" for years to come, just as the General Education proposal did after its institution in the late '40s. While it is true that the Core will not affect the curriculum of anyone now in the College--a factor that probably accounted for the marginal student opposition the plan received all year--the Core will affect subsequent classes at least until the end of the century.

For many reasons the Core plan is a major mistake. The five subcommittees Dean Rosovsky appointed last year created a curriculum that may adversely, if indirectly, affect America's higher education system, for Harvard carries considerable weight in social and academic circles. For this reason, outsiders and members of the University alike should bear in mind that while the Gen Ed program certainly merited revamping, the Core is not the answer.

The Core in fact represents a disturbing move away from the cherished, traditional concept of a "liberal education." The plan's rigid requirements, minimally softed by two late amendments, simply do not allow students enough freedom to gain what they see as a balanced education.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the Core controversy was the method by which it was discussed and finally adopted. Harvard's administrators like to function in quiet, low-profile fashion, tinkering with the system but largely failing to consult the students who will be affected by their plans. True to form, the Core has arrived with a minimum of student input. It is strangely presumptuous--almost insulting--to ask undergraduates to buy the idea that a small number of Faculty members know enough about Harvard's problems to be able to suggest a replacement for Gen Ed. A Crimson poll in March revealed that 65 per cent of the undergraduate body was opposed to the Core, yet that important opinion was ignored and the feeble attempts at organized resistance were too little and far too late.

When the first sketchy outlines of what became a very intricate proposal came to light last year, most students and Faculty members believed that only five new areas of general education would be established to replace the three now in existence. But the Core as it stands today recommends a much more rigid program, with ten rather vague areas in all, out of which students must choose eight. This is unacceptable: although we recognize the inevitability and practicality of some sort of Gen Ed revision, ten areas constitute an unnecessarily excessive infringement on students' freedom of choice. The idea of a wide variety of required courses in a loose framework, as embodied by the Gen Ed principle, is desirable. The Core goes too far in the opposite direction.


A major problem with the Core is the attempt by its authors to delineate carefully the structure and content of courses to be designated as "Core courses," which will gradually phase out Gen Ed courses over the next four academic years. Whether Faculty members will be willing to teach the types of courses outlined in the report is not clear; the Core may well set up the type of large lecture courses that no one likes to teach and no one wants to take.

The Gen Ed program, while admittedly inadequate in several respects, at least makes some concessions to the individual talents of Faculty members. To attempt to eradicate much of the educational innovation present in many small, specialized courses in a misguided effort at best.

The Core Curriculum is only a poor substitute for the good advice and counseling that would direct, but not coerce, students to attain a balanced education. And the Core will not solve one of Harvard's fundamental problems: the dearth of close associations between students and Faculty members. Instead, by setting up huge introductory courses as the bases of an already-suspect Harvard education, the Core will only widen the gulf between students and Faculty members. A Harvard education could easily be reduced to instruction by busy, underpaid graduate students who are more interested in pleasing their doctoral advisers than accommodating the students in their classes and sections.

In the wake of the Faculty's 182-65 vote in favor of the Core, it is incumbent upon the Standing Committees on the Core, which will be formed over the summer, to use their enormous powers of discretion to make the Core courses as palatable as possible. Finally, it is imperative that the Faculty not feel that its efforts for reform of undergraduate education are terminated for the decade, now that the Core is a reality. Notoriously problematic areas of concern remain, including tutorials, student-faculty contact, advising, and alternate concentrations. The Core addresses only a small part of undergraduate education at Harvard. Once it has worked out the details of its unfortunate progeny, the Faculty should turn its energies to these other desperately needed areas for reform. Perhaps it should have turned to these areas first, but that speculation is academic now that the Core is here to stay.