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Time to Reform the Core

The Core Stultifies Students' Approaches to Knowledge

By Riad M. Abrahams

On the issue of Core Curriculum reform, first-years hold a unique perspective and interest. Our class stands to lose or benefit the most from current decisions. And combined with our broad outlook upon academic policy--one unbiased by previous and often negative experiences with the Core--it demands that we reject the ubiquitous resignation which characterizes the upperclasses, and voice our opposition to what clearly is an institution restrictive to our academic development.

It is only upon cursory glance and as a means to inculcating a wide "approach to knowledge," that the Core presents itself as a worthy facet of the liberal arts education. Indeed, while we ought to embrace the administration's philosophy that, "every student should know a little bit of everything, and something well," it is equally necessary that we recognize that as it stands, the Core is less an aid than an impediment to that end.

Not only does the Core exacerbate the already uneasy selection of courses during shopping period, but more importantly in forcing students into a limited circle of choices, it emerges opposed to the very goals which it seeks to realize. It negates the practically limitless opportunities granted by Harvard's course offerings.

In occupying a fourth of the necessary undergraduate requirements, the Core forces the already burdened student to limit his elective choice to eight courses. In truth, Core offerings hardly qualify, as some like to propose, as quasi-electives. In many cases, with scheduling and logistical constraints factored in, Core offerings are reduced to one or two courses--a rather stringent definition of choice and election. Further, in exploring possible concentrations, Core topics are often too focused to provide an introduction to a future field of study. They often point students towards taking five classes in order to settle upon a concentration.

The Core's philosophy is predicated on the belief that students, if left to themselves, are unable to properly distribute their courses over a wide variety of subject matter. In the least, such skepticism is clearly an indictment of the admissions process. Harvard students, as we have come to know them, are admitted not on narrow-minded attitudes but rather on their capacity to explore a diverse set of interests. It is ridiculous to assume that a student free to select his or her own courses would devote all 32 course requirements to one topic area.

Surely no one doubts that a student ought to graduate with an ability to converse cogently on any topic, but here the Core falls short. In establishing the ten subject divisions--seven of which cover the three broad areas of Science, History and Literature & Arts--the Core fails to allow the student to explore those areas which are of keen interest.

While the faculty may deem a course in Foreign Cultures necessary, it is the student's prerogative to decide whether his or her interests might better be served in a history course, for instance, with a similar yet more engaging twist. Moreover, what purpose is served when Government 10: Public & Private--An Introduction to Political Philosophy, shares more than two-thirds of its reading syllabus with Moral Reasoning 50, but fails to qualify as a valid substitution?

No positive outcome exists in forcing a student to select a course whose subject matter is most likely to receive cursory attention, when the desire to learn can be peaked by a course more suited to the student's interest. There is a broad impression among undergraduates that the Core fails to meet its goal of making, "Harvard undergraduate education useful, engaging and enlivening." The faculty must ask whether a student ought to memorize and regurgitate or read and discuss. Moreover, those few Cores which do captivate the student fall victim to over-subscription, exacerbating the already prevalent disinterest.

As it stands, the Core can clearly benefit from reform. While Harvard has never been one to follow the path of other academic institutions, the time to consider alternative approaches to ensuring a liberal arts education has arrived.

The most promising of those alternatives and one practiced by many universities, a switch to distribution requirements, is ideal. For in allowing the student to select any course from generalized topic areas, such requirements not only allow for students to become a "company of educated men and women," but also respect the student's ability to determine the scope of his Harvard education. In the least, the faculty must expand Core subject areas to include more of the generalized course offerings whose subject matter relates to the program areas.

The Core clearly fails to meet its objectives. It wrongly assumes the existence of a lost and misguided student body, and its requirements limit rather than expand the breadth of undergraduate education. The level of coercion involved contributes not to intellectual discourse but rather to resignation brought upon by boredom and disinterest.

The need to reform the Core Curriculum through expansion of offerings or a new policy of distribution requirements is paramount. A student who graduates with a willingness to explore and a desire to engage her interest should be the end goal of the College's mission to prepare students for the "vigorous life of the mind"--a mission which seeks to yield students who leave Harvard not with regret but with satisfaction.

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