Reaching the Core of the Matter

The Search for Courses Begins As Inquiries on the Plan Pile Up

Because Harvard has a reputation as an educational leader, much of the educational community dutifully pays rapt attention to innovations at Harvard. And the new Core Curriculum, the first manor overhaul of Harvard's undergraduate education since the late '40, has accordingly brought record numbers of inquiries since the Faculty passed it last spring, even though there are still many wrinkles to be ironed out.

Over the summer Charles P. Whitlock, associate dean of the Faculty, spoke about Harvard's new Core Curriculum to officials from two universities in Indonesia, one in Yugoslavia, a woman's college in Seoul, S. Korea, 18 Australian universities, and the University of Montreal. That, says Whitlock, is only a sampling of the hundreds of requests for information about the Core that have come into his office form colleges and universities both in this country and abroad.

The enthusiasm surprises some, considering that Harvard's is not the first program of non--concentration requirements, and not by a long shot the most radically new educational experiment of this age. But whatever Harvard has to say about the place of a liberal arts education in the world today, other educators are going to listen because Harvard, after all, is Harvard.

But the Core that has attracted so much attention still exists only on paper; students here are still waiting to see how it will shape up. Although Harvard has issued a report outlining the requirements in the Core and the principles behind it, the Faculty and administrators still have much work ahead of them before the Class of '83, the first class required to fulfill any Core requirements, will begin taking courses next fall.

What the Faculty and administrators have to work with is a plan for five areas of study: Literature and the Arts, History, Social and Philosophical Analysis, Science and Mathematics, and Foreign Languages and Cultures. Each area of study is split into subdivisions, for a total of ten, and one half- course is required in each of the subdivisions. The Faculty committed itself early, however, to guaranteeing that under the Core plan students will not have to take more than the eight half-courses required under the Gen. Ed. program. The Core will include a system of exemptions from Core courses, depending on a student's concentration, so any student who wishes may complete the Core with only eight half-courses.


At the moment, however, the Core has no courses, and many questions about requirements, exemptions and the implementation of the program are still unanswered. Dean Rosovsky has not yet appointed the Standing Committee on the Core or the seven subcommittees (one for each area of study, plus one each on Expository Writing and the language requirement), which will find or generate Core courses.

Rosovsky has declined to comment on his selections for the committees until he formally announces them later this fall. In fact, Rosovsky has chosen not to comment on any aspect of the Core at least until the crucial committee work is underway. Glen W. Bowersock '57, associate dean for undergraduate education, said Rosovsky has discussed the choices with him, but Bowersock would not comment, either.

The committees will continue this year the process of creating the Core, which began in 1975 when Dean Rosovsky called for a review of the old General Education program. Begun in the '40s when a liberal education was expected to, as Whitlock says, "preserve and pass on western traditions and culture," the Gen Ed. program lost much of its cohesiveness in the '60s when a proliferation of courses added titles to the catalog that had less and less reference to the original goals of the program.

The biggest task facing the Core committees is to find enough courses that fit into the framework outlined in the Core report to make up a comprehensive curriculum. Administrators expect that when fully implemented the Core will contain about 80 to 100 courses, slightly less than in Gen Ed. Dean Rosovsky has said that he expects to offer incentives to Faculty members who develop Core courses. Faculty members have speculated that those incentives will take the form of extra leaves of absence or extension of junior faculty appointments.

Some Core courses will come from the ranks of existing courses, possibly in modified form. Although the Core committees have to make the final decisions, Edward T. Wilcox, director of General Education, is conducting a preliminary study to determine which Gen Ed courses might qualify for inclusion in the Core. The study, concerned mainly with determining how much of the budget for Gen Ed might be transferred to the Core directly, shows that or about 75 Gen Ed courses offered this year, about 30--mostly introductory courses in the Natural Sciences--seem to fit the Core criteria. Wilcox says he will take up a similar study of departmental courses.

Wilcox says the greatest problem in implementing the Core will be to find enough teaching fellows to staff all the new courses. Due to decreasing enrollment in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Wilcox explains, the pool of prospective teaching fellows "is just about down to zip."

But while Wilcox's studies go forward, a number of questions still remain about the structure of the course requirements. Last spring the Faculty agreed to authorize the Core committees to investigate several plans that would allow students more choice in how they fulfill the Core requirements. Facing the committees are plans to allow students a limited to by-pass Core courses with certain departmental courses, or to switch one half- course requirement from one field of study in the Core to another.

Also on the agenda for the committees this year is the task of determining the nature of the requirements for a basic proficiency in mathematics and a foreign language-- recommended in the Core report. Andrew M. Gleason, Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, said it is clear from a placement test in mathematics on the pre-calculus level, given to all freshmen for the first time last year, that many entering freshmen are poorly prepared in mathematics. One-third of last year's class could not answer correctly half of the questions on the test. Gleason heads a group of Faculty members who are trying to decide what level of mathematics should be required of students under the Core, but he will not comment on his group's recommendations until they present a report to the Faculty Council in October.

Harvard currently requires all students to demonstrate a proficiency in a foreign language through either an achievement test or one year in a language course. James Q. Wilson, Shattuck Professor of Government, and his task force on the Core which drew up the preliminary Core proposals and presented them in 1977, recommended that the Faculty abolish the language requirement. The final Core report says the language requirement should remain, but also says, "in view of the complex questions attendant on implementing such a view...all of which require further study, we recommend that the dean appoint a special committee for this purpose." Phyllis Keller, associate dean for academic planning, says the appointment of that committee will have to come soon so they can decide if and how they will continue the requirement.

Freshman expository writing plays a part in the Core report, but, in anticipation of the arrival this year of Robert Mariou, new director of Expos, the Faculty agreed to leave most decisions about the relationship of Expos to the Core up to Marius and the Expos Committee. Marius says he "would really like to have some mechanism by which the teachers of writing are involved in some way with papers students write for Core course."

Marius is not sure whether that mechanism should involve setting up Expos sections affiliated with specific Core courses, or merely permitting students in a history Expos section, for example, to turn in papers written for Core courses in history. This year Marius is continuing last year's experimental Expos sections affiliated with two large introductory courses in the English Department. He says it is hard to find students to fill these sections because there is only one section for each course, and freshmen in the course often have irresolvable scheduling conflicts that prevent them from attending that section. "Maybe if all the sections were affiliated with Core course that problem would fall," he adds.

The Committee on Undergraduate Education, a student-faculty advisory group, convinced the Faculty Council last spring to delete a section of the Core report that recommended instituting a placement test to allow qualified freshmen to place out of the Expos requirement. Marius says he does not want to see that recommendation reinstated. "It would put a lot of pressure on us if Expos were branded as a remedial course," Marius says. "You get enough opposition to any course that is required without making students feel that their presence in the course is in some way a failure." He adds, "I would rather be sure that our teaching is on such a level that even the best students at the College can profit from it."

The Expos, math and languages requirements are often used to bolster arguments that the Core is an effort by Harvard to go "back to basics". Arguments like this, especially when they suggest that the Core is in some way providing remedial education, infuriate Harvard administrators who say the Core has been misinterpreted by educators and the press. When audiences ask her what the Core is, if it is not a return to basics. Keller explains that it is "a response to the knowledge explosion and knowledge revolution. She adds that "knowledge has become almost inaccessible these days due to its quantity and difficulty, but at the same time it is absolutely essential because it plays such a central role in the organization of society. We are trying to see that students have a way of gaining access to that knowledge" through an understanding of what experts in the different disciplines do to obtain their knowledge.

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