You Should Love the Core

Critics Miss A Lot of Good Within the Liberal Curriculum

There are certainly a lot of bad things in life--Conan O'Brien's late shows, Mather's parties, Yale as a whole. And there are certainly a lot of good things--David Letterman's late show, Dunster's parties, Harvard as a whole.

But there are just some things that seem to be bad but actually are good when you think it over again, like, say, the Core. Everybody is talking about the Core: how ineffective it is at present and how badly it needs reforming. But if you take a survey around campus, asking folks to put down the names of the courses they take and to check the one that they feel is the real pain and have no choice but to stand, 9 out of 10 would not list a core. Of course, one or two would complain about Renaissance in Florence, for which the 20 required books may further add a financial pain. But, how do you compare this reading with that of frustrating Expos? Still, people continue to misunderstand the Core. The very reason may lie in the fact that it is forced onto students and we intuitively tend to hate it.

There are several reasons why we should love the Core. First of all, we are here for a truly liberal education, and only programs like the Core can fulfill this purpose. Almost every prestigious college has such a program. After all, people at Columbia suffer far more than we do from a system of distributional requirements--like curriculum offering courses at concentration levels. Even if the Core requirement became optional, most students would definitely choose Justice rather than Harvey Mansfield's Gov 1060.

Secondly, with so many smart folks around here you cannot always expect As, but in many Core courses you always can. Professors tend to be Mr. Hydes dealing with concentrators, but turn into Dr. Jekylls when dealing with "Core-ers." They know clearly that they are out there to propound modes, not depth, of thinking. They care about your grades more than you do. A very good example would be the No. 1 core, Ec 10, where Pareto efficiency is reached by a neat "unit test" system -- if you spend twenty minutes passing those extremely easy tests, your final grade of B+ becomes an A-; if you don't, well, come try again. If you still don't make it (oh, man, it can't be!), okay, don't worry about it, it won't affect your grade at all, so just pretend there is no such test. You are almost guaranteed to be better off in a Core than anywhere else.

Third, and most important, the Core is cool because we do learn many cool things. After taking Core courses, a math person can feel justified commenting on Shakespeare with English majors, and Gov jocks can bravely discuss concepts like quantum dynamics with future physicists. Now that we all have this shared knowledge, we make more friends than we otherwise would. Just think: a pre-med meets a pre-law for the first time, and it is only natural that they do not give a damn about each other's field. Then what can they talk about, besides "what's your name" "Where are you from" "What do you live"? Yes, they talk about the "Bible," a.k.a., Lit & Arts C-37!

Such a forced curriculum as the Core sometimes exerts an unimaginable influence on a person's academic life. When Takchun Chung '98 first got here from Hong Kong as a determined Biochemistry major, he became so worried about the possibility of his failing a paper-heavy Core that he even considered transferring to some Core-free college. After a desperate shopping period, he decided to drink the poison early and chose to face Moral Reasoning 32 like a man.

In September, 1994, Chung went to the Coop to buy A Treatise of Human Nature by some chap named Hume. In Janurary, 1995, believe it or not, he raved with unquestioned expertise about Hume's theories to his pre-med friends for three hours over dinner. "God, how come I've begun to like Moral Reasoning?" Chung asked himself curiously, "Anyway, I'll surely take more philosophy courses. Wait, shall I switch my concentration?" Probably not--not philosophy, that is, because he is taking Social Analysis this semester, which he finds even more enjoyable.

However, the current problem with the Core is basically a paradox of the big and the small. The more popular a class, the bigger the student population, and the smaller the chance each individual has to talk to the professor, or even to see clearly what he looks like.

Throughout his nine years teaching "Ec 10," Professor Martin Feldstein, who may well call this paradox a typical "trade-off," has seldom known what is going on down there in the 900-strong audience when he was standing in the dim light on the stage of Sanders Theatre.

This puts students who go to less popular Cores (of no less interesting subject matter) at an enviable advantage. I took Science A-16 with 40 people last semester and was greatly surprised when Professor Henry Ehrenreich told me that my spoken English had improved a lot compared to four months ago, "though still with a slight trace of accent."

In order to keep a reasonable class size, our professors, while going all- out to make their courses attractive, have to resort to lotteries, making matters even worse for students. When talking about Literature & Arts C-49, a Core in its first go-round this semester, Professor Lee Ou-fan Lee said during his first lecture, "The Core Office asked me to give my course a sexy name." The name he finally ended up with, Cultural China in Contemporary Perspectives, may not be that sexy, but he does use some teaching methods -- modern movies and MTVs -- that are sexy enough to draw more than 250 students to his first two lectures. By the third lecture, after 150 had been lotteried out.

"The result of the lottery did not come out until 4 p.m. on the day before the study card was due. I didn't get in, and I had to put down a course for which I already missed two classes. And I barely made the last minute to get my study card signed," Yu Chen '98 said. "I bought the books, I did the reading, but they finally announced they didn't want any first-years or sophomores."

What needs to be done is not what the Undergraduate Council claims to be "more flexibility, more diversity." The Core doesn't lack any of these (in fact, the council does lack these and more badly needs reforming.) The essential question here is how to make everybody have as much fun as possible with cores. And the answer is -- since professors are a scarce resource, bring in more qualified TFs, TFs who are knowledgeable, accessible, easy-going and good-humored! And then quit forever the lottery system, and let all people take whatever core they want.

Anything else unsatisfactory about the Core? Why must one complete so much work for a seemingly stupid topic? Come on, this is the place called Harvard. Who came here just to party?