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Esprit de Core

By John L. Larew

COURSES in Harvard's Core Curriculum may be maligned for being superfical and vacuous, but at least they are popular. Of the courses with the 10 largest enrollments this semester, nine were Core offerings. Social Analysis 10, "Principles of Economics," weighed in with 769 students. Science B-29, "Human Behavioral Biology," has 600, even though its course catalogue listing warns that enrollment is limited to 500. The only non-Core course to break into the top 10 was a notorious gut, History 1340b, "European Intellectual History."

The huge enrollments in this semester's Core offerings produced the usual problems: lecture halls bulging to capacity; overburdened teaching fellows; crowded, impersonal sections; lack of contact between students and instructors; sold-out books at the Coop and a general feeling that learning at Harvard should be better than it is.

Cores aren't jam-packed with students because the material is so interesting or the professors so captivating. There are simply too many students vying for too few courses. A few calculations reveal that the Core Curriculum is structured to produce huge classes. What it isn't designed to produce is a "core" education that would justify the huge classes.

IN ORDER to satisfy eight Core requirements during the usual eight semesters at Harvard, students must take an average of one Core per semester (disregarding for simplicity's sake double-counting Cores, full-year Cores and the large science courses that count for Core credit). This semester, 39 courses are offered in the Core Curriculum. This means--given 6400 undergraduates--that the average Core course will have 164 students.

When Harvard boasts to prospective students of its 6:1 student-faculty ratio, it neglects to mention that students are forced to fill fully one-fourth of their requirements in courses that average more than 150 students each.

When we look at particular Core areas, the possibilities are even more discouraging. This semester, Harvard offers only three courses in Social Analysis (including the full-year Social Analysis 10) and two in Historical Studies B. Students who wanted to fulfill their Moral Reasoning requirement last semester had only one choice--which met at 9 a.m.

No wonder so many students waited until this semester to fulfill this requirement--making Moral Reasonings 30 and 38 rank seventh and eighth, respectively, with a combined total of 695 students. So much for Assistant Professor of Philosophy Frederick Neuhouser's theory that students flocked to Moral Reasoning 38 because it covered "important texts that don't get done at Harvard very often--Marx, Nietzsche, Feuerbach."

THE over-population in Core courses would be forgivable if the Core truly represented a "core" of knowledge that the University expected every student to learn. But it doesn't. The Core is littered with narrow, esoteric offerings such as "Monuments of Japan," "The Age of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent: Art, Architecture and Ceremonial at the Ottoman Court," and "Beast Literature." Although these areas of scholarship are surely important in their own right, they defy any common notions of what a "core" education should comprise. And they make poor excuses for forcing hundreds of students to crowd into one class in order to fulfill a requirement.

The Core suffers from schizophrenia. According to Courses of Instruction, the Core tries to train students in "the knowledge, intellectual skills, and habits of thought that are the hallmarks of educated men and women." But Harvard claims the Core does not require "digestion of a specific quantum of information," presumably because any specific factual knowledge will soon become obsolete in the age of the information explosion. Instead, the Core attempts to teach the "forms of inquiry" and "approaches to knowledge"--essentially, ways of thinking--associated with each of the Core fields, irrespective of factual content. It ends up doing neither.

As it stands, Harvard's "Core" is a fake. It is a set of distribution requirements masquerading under the name of a core curriculum. If Harvard wants to its students to fulfill distribution requirements to ensure that we are "well-rounded," it should be honest with us and rename the Core. Then it should expand the course offerings to offer a large variety of small courses in each distribution area.

Better yet, if Harvard insists on crowding us 500 to a room under the pretense of receiving a common "Core instruction," it should at least offer a core curriculum worthy of the name.

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