Soft-Core Analysis

Getting at the Core, Curricular Reform at Harvard By Phyllis Keller Harvard University Press, 165 pp.

THE "APPENDIX" to Phyllis Keller's book on the Core Curriculum evokes a laugh--a laugh born of the shock of recognition. Sure enough, there in the unmistakable typeface and format of the Course Catalogue is "a partial listing of Core courses" (last year's). The Big Book's vapid generalizations and inimitable manner of description are here preserved for all posterity, from "Literature and Arts A-11--Theater and Drama" to "Foreign Cultures 32--Political Doctrines and Society." Bound into the volume with them is the account--as seen by Phyllis Keller, associate dean of the Faculty for academic planning--of how such arrange animals ever came to be.

Keller's faintly anomalous position as an observer of and participant in the Core's genesis--which she presents as a case study in academic reform, with implications of interest for American education in general--is characterized by a passage in the book's acknowledgements. After describing her involvement in the reform process through committee membership and "countless meetings," she notes that the book is "not in any sense an official or 'authorized' account of what happened. I have tried to make this record of the Core controversies as full and objective as possible and to give a fair and accurate representation of opposing views."

Keller is entirely aboveboard about her firm commitment to the Core experiment, her next paragraph numbers President Bok, Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky, and Core task force chairman James Q. Wilson among those who criticized and reviewed the book in manuscript. For the reader truly skeptical of the Core's philosophy, her account is likely to be more historically than philosophically interesting, more rationale than investigative debate.

Not that the rationale isn't fascinating as such. For of all curricular reform movements launched or proposed over the years, whether at Harvard or in the wider scope of beleagured American school systems. Harvard's Core vision is perhaps the one whose logical and philosophical underpinnings are the least obvious to observers. Though the national press did, as Keller notes, focus massive attention on the event as an educational revolution, academics across the country still express confusion as to what exactly the fuss was about Many thought the proposed array of 90 courses as a "core" of basic knowledge was a bit idiosyncratic. Others went further and called it ludicrous. The vast majority of outside observers failed to see the distinction between the Core "revolution" and its sagging predecessor. General Education. And students, as Keller seems implicitly aware throughout her narrative, have on the whole persisted to the present day in their irritation at the contradictions of the system.

GETTING AT THE CORE clearly has value in mapping out the preconceptions and priorities under which the innovators operated. And Keller's explanation of how various dissenting opinions were either dispensed with or incorporated fully satisfies the curiosity. Whether or not one agrees with the policy that emerged. Keller makes it clear how it happened.


Keller deals at length, for example, with the familiar, perplexing question of why students may not substitute departmental courses for Core offerings. It would be patently absurd, of course, to imagine that in two years of Faculty deliberations that option never came to mind. Keller traces the conflict between "hard Core" and "soft Core" advocates, the former favoring and the latter advocating more flexibility. Basic to the discussions was the disputed definition of a "broad education"--should it stress knowledge of specific subject matter in several areas, or focus instead on introducing students to the different disciplines' "modes of inquiry"?

Firmly believing the latter, Rosovsky and other fervent supporters of the proposed plan fought the advocates of flexibility by stressing Core courses' special nature. Unlike departmental courses, they were to treat the broad themes and analytic methods of the appropriate discipline in question, using the actual course material as essentially a case study rather than as knowledge to be acquired. As such, Core courses would obviously be irreplaceable, and innumerable survey courses that might otherwise seem appropriate for the acquisition of a "broad, common core of knowledge" would not fit into the Core because of approach.

Given Rosovsky's firm commitment to the "modes of inquiry" approach, it is clear from Keller's narrative that the flexibility advocates had little or no chance. Originally opposing the main sweep of the recommendations from within the Core task force, those who felt students should be able to choose substance, rather than method-oriented courses proposed a series of "limited bypass" and other amendments.

By the time the plan came up for full Faculty vote, the alternatives had boiled down to two. One proposed allowing students to petition to replace the Core with an alternative distribution formula, specifying a mix of introductory and advanced courses in two of three broad areas, on the grounds that some students might already have a degree of expertise that the Core could not satisfy. Though the formula "appeared to provide just one more degree of curricular flexibility." Keller says, "Rosovsky and his followers were quick to perceive that if the faculty supported a more distribution requirement, no matter how restrictive, then the Core was doomed before it started."

The option, placed strategically at the end of a list of amendments that progressed from the most to the least friendly, failed. What passed instead was a denatured "flexibility amendment" which "empowered the committee to make evolutionary changes" in the program before its formal ratification in 1983. As Rosovsky noted, the recommendation "did not dictate an outcome."

KELLER'S DETAILED ACCOUNTS of such controversies not only illuminate what Rosovsky had in mind, they also make crushingly clear how inevitable it was that the Core take on its present form, with no mitigating factors, once the dean had determined his philosophy of, as Keller puts it, making students "dilettantes in the best sense." The price of sacrificing all possible alternatives to remain true to a curricular concept has definite cautionary overtones, especially if one compares the blithe generalities of the dean's vision with the face-less, focus-less classes that crowd the Core today:

Where the [Gen Ed] program had attempted a broad, survey-like introduction to all the major areas of knowledge, the Core isolated certain ways of tackling problems in different areas and required students to learn these, not in some abstract way but by actually wrestling with and working through selected sets of problems.

No doubt like those who debated and developed the Core. Keller avoids making a direct judgment as to which approach--learning the methods and aims of a subject, or learning the subject--has more educational value. And that question forms the basis for the typical undergraduate's frustration at not being able to take Ec- 10-type survey courses or legitimate in-depth courses in all areas, instead of strange compilations of "conflicts of cultures" or "monuments of Japan."

Had Rosovsky and Company felt less strongly about their mandate, they might conceivably have seen more to recommend Gen Ed's flexibility than an opportunity for students "to dip more or less randomly into the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities". And had they paid closer attention to the difference between intention and execution in Gen Ed, they might have foreseen that the Core's constraints would only keep students from exploring even that far. As it is, Keller's account is as frustrating as it is enlightening. It's depressing for a Core critic to think that even if he had been there to argue, he couldn't have stopped the tide.