Among the many attacks recently made against the Core Curriculum, those for survey courses have led the way. Survey courses, I'm afraid, are not the biggest problem.
"The philosophy of the Core Curriculum rests on the conviction that every Harvard graduate should be broadly educated, as well as trained in a particular academic specialty or concentration." These are the informative words provided by the faculty of the Core Curriculum, found on page one of our course catalogues. For those of us who neglected to give this introductory paragraph its due attention--I will assume this is many of us--it is an attempt to describe the structure of the Core and the goals behind such organization.
We are told that the Core "does not define intellectual breadth as...the surveying of current knowledge in certain fields." Most arguments raised concerning the Core focus on the shortage, if not mere lack, of what we at Harvard hear our friends from other colleges call "survey courses." Many feel Core classes are far too narrow for a curriculum which claims its intent is to foster a board education. Taking Literature and Arts B - 3 9 ("Michelangelo") clearly is not the same as taking an art survey class. This argument criticizing the limited number of broad survey courses is not the root of failure for the Core, however.
Harvard should not be expected to provide students with a general European History or poetry class, but should demand that its applicants and acceptees have had one. As a top university in the country, it should be attracting those students with a previous, high-school-provided general education. Therefore, students requesting broader classes in the Core Curriculum are presenting an argument indicative not of a shortcoming in the Core itself, but of a lowering in the standards of "pre-Harvard" education.
Insufficiencies of this sort have little to do with the Core Curriculum itself, and therefore are not key factors in its impending reevaluation. A far more counterproductive aspect of the Core is the policy that keeps department courses out. What is the logic behind an educational system which prefers that I sit in Sanders for one of Marjorie Garber's lectures on Shakespearean plays, rather than being taught by visiting Professor Stephen J. Greenblatt in his field of specialty, "Shakespeare and Cultural Difference?"
Such a system of education must think I have more electives to spare than I do, for as a non-English concentrator my valuable literature electives are few and far between. It must also believe that large, overflowing lectures of students, the majority of whom are there to "fill a Core," are preferable and educationally more beneficial than smaller, more intimate circles of students very well-read in the material, students most likely concentrating in that field.
This too is a logic with which I am unfamiliar. Why not more broadly insist that students take a literature class, in the style of their choice, rather than limiting their options to those classes which qualify as Literature and Arts A?
The defense would argue for the Core that (and we go back to page one of the course book) "The Core seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education." These classes, in other words, are very carefully selected for the approach utilized in each and not for the nature of the specific subject matter. That's funny--the government department seems to see no unique "approach to knowledge" in Moral Reasoning 22, known as "Justice," for it includes it among its government classes. As a government concentrator who has sat through both the aforementioned Core and government department courses, I too fail to see this distinguishable "approach." Therefore, members of the Faculty of the Committee on the Core Program, either loosen the ban on departmental classes or make more apparent this distinct "approach to knowledge" the Core claims to instill.
After all, the ban is fairly loose for Science A and B. Biogical Sciences 1 and 2 each satisfy the requirement for Science B, while Chemistry 5, 7, or 10 may be substituted for a Science A class. Moreover, a four or five on an AP biology exam exempts a student from a Science B, while the chemical science APs do likewise for Science A. And yet, for a 5 on the AP English exam one is merely patted on the back and receives nothing towards credit for the Literature and Arts requirements. The Core is much more protective of its precious humanities classes than of its sciences, by seeking to impose its non-science classes with greater force than that employed in the two science bands. Science Cores are easily avoidable or replaceable, while those Cores which fall in the humanities bands are stubbornly uncompromising to departmental course and Core interchangeability.
Clearly, the Core in this sense favors the science student. For the science concentrators, their eight Core requirements rarely overlap with their departmental courses required by their chosen field of study. The humanities concentrators at Harvard are more often than not required to take courses from related fields, that is related humanities fields. Therefore, it is that person who by nature of chosen concentration will confront the frustration of being deprived of Core credit for work done in the department itself. An English concentrator choosing government as a related field cannot use such a course to fill a Moral Reasoning requirement. The humanities concentrators face far more overlap between their department courses and their Core classes, and as a result are discriminated against by the Core Curriculum. This inherent discrepancy between a humanities concentrator's experience with the Core and that of the science student is merely exacerbated when compounded with the unequal policies towards APs in the two spheres of study.
Many science students understandably prefer a departmental history class as opposed to a Historical Studies B class and, like the humanities oriented, should be permitted to satisfy a requirement with such a course rather than spending one of their precious few electives. Both the science concentrators and humanities-inclined are denied this logical maximization of Harvard resources and possibilities.
The schedule of a student who fuses the two by concentrating in government, fine arts, history or other non-science fields and is also pre-med sheds full light on this counterproductivity in the Core. That student easily satisfies the Science A and B requirements with pre-med subjects but is still locked into the stringent non-science Core requirements--effectively left with few to no electives.
The likelihood is that if that student were able to use department courses for Core credit, many Cores would be filled in this way, leaving the student with an acceptable number of electives.
A decision must soon be made. If the individual bands of the Core are expanded to allow more flexibility by using department courses for Core credit, then we bid farewell to the entire existence of the Core as a distinct body of courses. In such a case, the Core would cease to exist as a separate entity, but would be incorporated into the departmental curriculums.
But no one wants to say goodbye to the Core, Harvard's unique way of giving students requirements. It would be like suddenly calling TF's TA's and asking people about their majors. Well, if it is merely the insistence on original name-giving, then I urge the faculty to reconsider. But if all we'll really miss is the name, then in the words of Shakespeare (which I studied while spending an elective and not by filling a Core requirement), "What's in a name"?