A Decision Rotten to the Core

Core Committee Should Have Embraced Historical Surveys

Iam absolutely stupefied by the recent decision of the Core program's Historical Study subcommittee to prevent History 10a and 10b from entering the Core. I can't think of any action which would have been more beneficial to the Core. Not only would these courses provide some backbone to the generally wishywashy offerings of the core, but their inclusion would send an important message: that Harvard recognizes the importance of the survey class.

History 10a and 10b are survey courses which cover Western history from antiquity to the present. I am currently enrolled in History 10b, and I find it to be an excellent course, providing necessary factual information along with insightful and interesting analysis. But for some strange reason, academia's perverse antipathy toward sur-veys seems to have raised its ugly head once again. Ostensibly, the committee killed the proposal because of details which seem completely insignificant: whether or not the courses will be Historical Studies A or B, etc.

This doesn't strike me as an issue over which Harvard professors should stumble. The Historical Studies segment of the core is currently divided into an A category, which focuses on "major issues of the contemporary world," and a B category, which presents "the documented details of some transforming event or group of events," according to the Courses of Instruction. Granted, 10a and 10b don't fit neatly into either category, but it wouldn't upset any great cosmic order to add these two classes to the A category, the broader of the two. It is the reluctance of the subcommittee to take this minor step that is the problem.

I feel that this decision was the result of the Core program's general desire to remain a bastion of obscure and esoteric education in which professors can indulge their scholarly impulses, often at the expense of their students. It's no secret that professors dislike surveys; they feel they are dry and leave no room for them to show off all the big words and obscure facts they learned while earning their Ph. D.'s.

The simple fact, however, is that survey courses are necessary. They are the backbone of a liberal arts education. They provide the information that allows students to effectively delve into specialized areas later in their career. How can someone study, say, the French Revolution if he doesn't understand or even know the history of the previous centuries?


And Harvard students seem to agree with me. The Undergraduate Council endorsed the proposal to include the history classes almost unanimously. And the proposal's co-author, History Department Head Tutor and Professor of History James Hankins told the Crimson, "From what I understand, the students want courses that are broader in scope."

Some may argue against surveys by claiming that most students learn the basics in high school. Come now, let's be serious. I haven't had European history since ninth grade and that was with a teacher who was arguably deader than the white males we were studying. Granted, I'm an electrical engineer. I admit that many history majors probably do enter the university with the facts required to jump right into micro analysis.

But if the university structures its programs so that only students concentrating in a field will know the basics of that field then the university is still amazingly negligent. As Professor Hankins so succinctly phrases it, "I feel sorry for these poor guys in chemistry or physics who are going to take two history courses in their lives and they are forced to take some microevent--the emergence of basket weaving in Tibet in the ninth century or some-thing like that."

The first sentence of the description of the core program in the Courses of Instruction reads, "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."

And yet members of the subcommittee explained that "they had serious reservations about the appropriateness of the courses [10a and 10b] as Historical Studies offerings." 10a and 10b are eminently appropriate, and if the Core program does not think so, then it needs to dramatically revise its conception of a good under graduate education.

By restructuring the core to include more survey classes, the university will be fulfilling its obligation to provide a solid and well-rounded education to its students. I'm not arguing that we remove specific, strange and obscure classes from the Core. Micro analysis is good and necessary. Some of my favorite classes have been cores.

But if I can't learn the basics of history or art or literature at the paragon of higher education that is Harvard University, then I'm going to pack it in and head for my local community college.