The Core of the Problem

What could be worse than a cold toilet seat in the morning? An eight-semester curriculum designed by the Committee on the Core Program.

And while the current system isn't that bad, students too often must compromise their true academic interests and settle for a less satisfying intellectual experience because of strict Core requirements.

For a little over $100,000, most students will take approximately 32 courses while they are at Harvard, assuming that they will have eight semesters of four courses each.

If eight of those 32 courses must be devoted to getting educated as the Committee on the Core Program sees fit, then students should be able to pick from a broader range of courses to fulfill Core requirements.

In practical terms, students should be allowed to take both designated Core classes and courses in the corresponding departments (as is currently allowed with the science requirement). This more flexible policy would remain faithful to the aims of the Core, while giving students much more freedom.


University Hall's immediate objection to this proposal, of course, will be that departmental courses simply don't meet the aims of the Core's philosophy.

But this isn't necessarily the case. The party line on the Core, as explained in Courses of Instruction, is that the Core is supposed to "introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education. It aims to show what kinds of Knowledge and what forms of inquiry exist in these areas, how different means of analysis are acquired, how they are used, and what their value is. The courses within each area...of the program are equivalent in the sense that...their emphasis on a particular way of thinking is the same."

(Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, account for this ostentatious tone by noting that the Committee on the Core had met with God, on Mount Sinai, before disseminating this truth to students.)

If a course is taught in some academic department, then it clearly must share certain features with the other courses of that department. Namely, it must focus on similar subjects, problems and questions from a similar methodological and analytical perspective.

So any course within a department (corresponding to one of the six Core subjects--10 if you include the subdivisions) probably meets the aims of the Core's philosophy--provided that the course in question is not so advanced and technical as to be incomprehensible to the beginner.

Ironically enough, many of the Core courses that are supposed to provide students with a broader intellectual outlook are much more narrow in their scope than departmental introductory courses.

For example, Historical Study B-35 focuses exclusively on the French Revolution, while History 10b examines "Western societies, politics and cultures" from 1650 to the present.

Most Core subjects have obvious departmental counterparts. Literature and Arts A, B and C would correspond to critical and historical courses in the departments of English, Music and Fine Arts.

Historical Study would correspond to courses in the History Department, and Moral Reasoning to courses in the Government and Philosophy departments that focus on moral and political philosophy.

Social Analysis, according to the "Introduction to the Core Curriculum," aims "to familiarize students with some of the central approaches of the social sciences and to do so in a way that gives students a sense of how those approaches can enhance their society. The course...will provide...analytical approaches that are systematically related to empirical data."