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Ten-Year Review Focuses on Mechanics, Not Philosophy

The Core Curriculum

By Eric S. Solowey

From the academic right, left and center, Harvard's Core Curriculum has faced much criticism throughout its 10 years.

But within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Core's 10th anniversary this spring prompted a review that put aside the larger philosophical issues in favor of administrative concerns.

Issued last month, the review was the result of a year-long survey of faculty, teaching staff and student representatives which attempted to evaluate the Core by focusing on details ranging from professors' satisfaction with teaching to the problems associated with section meetings.

The review showed the faculty considering only one significant change--a strengthening of the Core's Quantitative Reasoning Requirement (QRR). Otherwise, the faculty concerned itself not with academic policy, but rather with the mechanics of the Core. In fact, the overriding issue presented by most of the seven sub-areas of the Core was finding enough professors and teaching fellows to staff the courses.

"We are not about to recommend that the Core be abandoned," says Professor of Government Jorge I. Dominguez, who heads the Foreign Cultures subcommittee. "It is not because we forgot to consider the question, but that we decided that [although] it is not a perfect system, [it is] better than the alternatives."

What made the Core unique when it was created in the 1970s--as the brainchild of Geyser University Professor Henry Rosovsky--was that it was not supposed to teach a specific body of knowledge but was designed to teach undergraduates how to approach problems and think analytically.

"These courses aren't designed to teach you about the five most important books ever written," says Susan W. Lewis, director of the Core Program. "They are to get you to look and think critically about whatever it is, whether it is a piece of art, a book, a poem, a philosophical question."

But each area of the Core, responding to the particular constraints of the fields in which it is grounded, has evolved a different interpretation of what it means to teach "approaches to knowledge," according to the review.

For example, the Science subcommittee, more so than the others, presents concerns in the review that are oriented toward the practical needs of future scientists and communicating a specific body of information to non-scientists.

In the Literature and Arts area, however, "the stress [was] on conceptualization and methodology as opposed to learning the material," the review says.

But in this Core area it is most evident that, 10 years after the inception of the Core, there are some Harvard faculty members who still favor "the 100 great books concept" over teaching ways of reasoning.

"There were a few [faculty members in Literature and Arts] who deplored the stress on methodology and would favor a return to 'important works' as such," the report says. "This tendency is related to the few, but insistent, voices that request the return of survey courses."

And those few in the faculty who oppose the Core have many allies in the world of education.

The Core philosophy has drawn harsh criticism from the academic right, including former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who has tagged the program "Core lite."

Speaking at Harvard as part of the College's 350th anniversary celebration in 1986, Bennett said that an undergraduate academic program should provide students with a structured curriculum that would familiarize them with major topics in Western culture.

"I think students would benefit from a real core curriculum--i.e., a set of fundamental courses, ordered, purposive, coherent," Bennett said. "I cannot discern such a core curriculum here."

But in the 10-year Core review, these harsh criticisms were not addressed. Instead, the faculty focused on the administration of the curriculum.

A main problem they identified is the creation of new courses. Core courses take one or two years to develop, professors say, and it is also difficult to get faculty to teach them.

"For many faculty members, to teach in the Core is to commit an unnatural act," Dominguez has said. "It's a lot easier to teach concentrators. You do not have to worry about the motivational aspect. You do not have to explain the subject matter."

Faculty are also averse to teaching large classes--the courses which form the bulk of the Core program.

"There is a clear correlation between general unhappiness and and the size of courses," says the Literature and Arts report. "The 'blockbuster' is a major issue that arises again and again."

Four Literature and Arts B classes held lotteries because of overcrowding during the spring semester. As a result, a new Core policy was adopted last month which prioritizes students in case of class overcrowding, says Assistant Director of the Core Program Elisabeth W. Swain.

Under the new policy, students who enroll in a Core course for Core credit will get priority over those who enroll for concentration credit, and those taking the course as an elective will get last priority, says Swain.

But the University now finds itself in a Catch-22: Professors, discouraged by the large lecture courses in the Core, are reluctant to teach in the program. And because of this lack of faculty, the Core must continue to rely on the large courses that the professors are avoiding.

Beyond the faculty recruiting problem, almost every Core area says in its report that finding teaching staff for its courses is a central issue. Because the Core requires specially designed courses that must be taught in addition to departmental classes, there is a perennial scramble for teaching staff in similar courses, faculty members say.

"There is a healthy tension between departments who try to have course offerings be as good as they can make them, and the Core which tries to do the same things," says Clowes Professor of Science Henry Ehrenreich, who heads the Science subcommittee.

To rectify the situation, faculty members have said that they are working to recruit more teaching staff.

"There was a general concern about getting a well-trained staff," says Lewis of the review. "But we are trying to do a number of things to increase the pool from which the teaching fellows and teaching assistants are drawn."

Lewis says this effort includes sending Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students information about becoming Core program teaching staff, and recruiting teaching fellows and assistants from other Harvard graduate schools and from the local community.

Teaching staff who are not enrolled at Harvard, known as teaching assistants, currently constitute 15 percent of the Core teaching staff.

"In the Core, we have a pretty good record of recruiting teaching fellows from outside the Faculty of Arts and Sciences," says Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education David Pilbeam, a member of the Core Committee. Teaching fellows and assistants, he says, get similar performance ratings from students.

But while recruiting faculty and staff for Core courses cuts across the various areas of the Core, most of the other academic concerns remain specifically tied to individual fields.

For example, the Moral Reasoning component of the Core faces a particularly severe shortage of courses, largely because its definition is interdisciplinary and requires innovation from standard departmental courses. In fact, the subcommittee report says that when courses, such as the ever-popular Moral Reasoning 22, "Justice," need to be replaced, the Core area will face difficulty in finding adequate substitutes.

The Science A and B requirements of the Core are another instance of the localized problems of the Harvard curriculum. Because of what many scientists feel is inadequate preparation of students, the Science Core courses may not be meeting the expectations set up by the faculty.

To that end, subcommittee members are considering proposing a change in the requirements.

Since there is a "justified concern" that one term each of Science A and B does not provide an adequate introduction to science, the review says, the subcommittee will consider allowing two related Science A courses to fulfill the science requirement.

"The question we are considering is: Is it not better to spend more time learning less, but at greater depth?" asks Ehrenreich.

And although Ehrenreich says he believes the current science program is sufficient, he says the proposed changes will be considered in the fall by the Science subcommittee.

"The present system we have is working pretty well," concludes Ehrenreich. "But you can always ask if we can do better."

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