Ten-Year Review Focuses on Mechanics, Not Philosophy

The Core Curriculum

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.