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Toward Effective Core Reform


By Patricia Larash

In its write-up about the Harvard Coop, The Unofficial Guide to Life at Harvard 1995-96 compares the Coop to the Core: "Both try to be all things and are outdone by specialists. Both, while sporadically frustrating, are essentially benign. And both are inescapable during four years at Harvard." This is the premise on which the Core Review Committee is operating (whether it admits it or not): the Core is good, the Core is fallible and the Core is staying.

The Core Review Committee's mission is to conduct a review of the Core every five years and to recommend changes to the Standing Committee on the Core Program (chaired by Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles). The committee, headed by Director of the Core Program Susan W. Lewis and composed of six faculty members and two students, meets approximately twice a month for two hours at a time. I am one of those students.

At some meetings, the committee invites guest speakers from the different fields represented by the Core to discuss their philosophies and to answer our questions about how they administer their own Core courses. Guests have included Pope Professor Richard J. Tarrant, who teaches "Literature and Arts C-61: The Rome of Augustus" and Nancy Sommers, director of the Expository Writing program.

The current review committee's approach to the Core intends to refine, rather than revolutionize, the current system. This will disappoint many people. I have been passionately implored by more than one senior to destroy the Core as a favor to them before they graduate. (Sorry, guys.) What will result (or, rather, what may result; the committee will not finish deliberations until the next academic year) is a less monolithic Core more amenable to departmental bypasses.

My role on the committee is that of a disinterested undergraduate not affiliated with the Undergraduate Council. I have no particular agenda. The two issues which interest me most are Expos and departmental bypasses. Although Expos is not under fire in the committee, it has been discussed because the committee has been reviewing every general education requirement.

My take on Expos: it is the only undergraduate requirement which I consider sacred. Bad writing bothers me. I will entertain debate about the administration of Expos but not the necessity of it. Departmental bypasses are still under consideration, and I cannot predict at this point what the committee will decide.

I would have benefitted from departmental bypasses, had they been administered for Literature and Arts B the way that they are for the sciences. Departmental bypasses are, I think, the salvation of the Core. Core purists argue that departmental courses do not explicitly address the "approaches to knowledge" purpose of the Core; however, even existing Core courses accomplish this with only varying degrees of success.

The administration (from which I exclude the Review Committee) appears to lack faith in our interest in our own education. That lack of confidence is evidenced by their creating an artificial set of courses that, at least in the course catalogue, are billed as teaching us primarily approaches to a particular field and only incidentally material from the field itself. Most undergraduates of my acquaintance are, in fact, quite good at figuring things out for themselves and would be able to extrapolate approaches to literature in general from "English 140b: The Age of Johnson" or "Latin 110: Neronian Literature."

Making the Core more flexible will, of course, create an administrative nightmare. But any changes proposed by the review committee will make life a little more difficult for the administration and faculty. For example, there is talk of making the QRR a course requirement rather than an exam (calm down; nothing's been decided yet) and increasing the number of Core exemptions to compensate.

Allowing departmental bypasses would make the new and improved Core more palatable to students by addressing a fundamental characteristic of Harvard undergraduates (or at least the vocal segment thereof): We resent being told what to do.

The review committee is, as far as I can tell, rational and earnest and genuinely interested in providing us with a liberal arts education. I was skeptical at the beginning about the administration's power over the Core and about students' role on the review committee. Some professors and students have asked me if the committee has some sort of political agenda, if it favors the sciences over the humanities. But contrary to these suspicions, I have not noticed any bias in committee meetings.

The faculty members on the committee are a fairly representative cross-section of Harvard's departments. And the committee listens to its student members, although the faculty members tend to carry the conversation. Lewis has paid attention to my comments, both in meetings as well as in casual conversation with her. She has returned to points that I have made, even without prompting from me.

To be effective, Core reform should mediate the tension between what we think we want and what Harvard thinks is good for us. I do not think that the review committee has reached a complete synthesis of this yet, but may very well come up with something feasible by the end of the review process in the 1996-97 academic year.

Letters to the Core Review should be addressed to Professor Sidney Verba, Harvard University Library, Wadsworth House.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not intended to express or imply the views of the Core Review Committee or of the administration of Harvard University.

Patricia Larash '97 is a mild-mannered classics major living in Winthrop House.

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