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Proposal to Alter Core Curriculum Draws Fire, Praise

By David A. Fahrenthold

Last week, a committee of two undergraduates and six professors released a "Working Paper" outlining changes to the Core curriculum they recommend the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) enact.

In its May meeting, the Faculty is expected to debate the most substantial changes to the Core since its inception in 1974: creating a Quantitative Reasoning course requirement (replacing the current test-out option) in the Core and reducing the number of Core course required from eight to seven. If approved, the changes will go into effect for the class of 2001.

If the Faculty stays true to form, it will follow the recommendation given to it by the Faculty Council, a small group of elected representatives who started discussing the paper at their meeting last week.

Administrators and Faculty members laud the committee's eight months of work and tentatively praise the proposed changes.

Some students, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the CRC's proposed reforms.

"The Core is incapable of maintaining a satisfactory program now. Look at Moral Reasoning for instance," says Dalasini S. Cummings '99. "I think they should work on improving what they have before they try to change anything."

However, administrators counter that the Core is fulfilling a large part of its intention, and the proposed changes will address student dissatisfaction.

"There has been a concern for a while among Faculty and students, a concern about choice," says Dean of FAS Jeremy R. Knowles. "Such a large piece of the curriculum should surely have some elbow room in it, and even with 85 to 100 classes in the Core, there are some semesters, times of day, and subjects which are constraining to your choice."

The 1995-96 school year saw the largest Core course offering in history, but the number of Core classes is now at an all-time low, with Moral Reasoning offering only one class for the Spring semester.

"How well does the actual Core Program stand up?" the CRC's report asks, and after examining such issues as departmental bypasses, class and section size, course selection and the role of senior Faculty, the answer is a resounding "pretty well."

"It's basically two cheers for the Core: it's been doing a good job, but it's been by no means a perfect job," says Sidney Verba '53, chair of the Core Review Committee (CRC) and Pforzheimer University professor. "I think our two biggest reservations were reflected in our two biggest recommendations."

The QRR

The CRC's most dramatic proposal, noting that "recently, the power of quantitative analysis has been felt in all areas of study," recommends adding Quantitative Reasoning to the 10 current Core areas.

"When they were originally designing the Core, Quantitative Rea- -soning was something they talked about on an equal footing with the existing Core areas," says CRC member Patricia L. Larash '97. "For practical reasons and maybe a little politicking it wasn't included."

The Quantitative Reasoning Requirement (QRR) test, since 1974 a rite of passage for first-years, would be phased out under the CRC's plan, its primary-colored study books deemed "too brief an exposure for our undergraduates, given the clear need for greater fluency in quantitative matters," in the working paper.

"Quantitative Reasoning is certainly worth reconsidering," Larash says. "There's a feeling that an educated person should have some tools and intellectual sophistication to approach a world where quantitative things are so prevalent."

In an appendix to the report, the committee lists possible course offerings in the QRR, including courses in demographics, behavior in high-risk situations and mathematical modeling.

"Two of us are contemplating courses in the new requirement, and we're very enthusiastic if that's the way it all works out," says Statistics Department Chair Carl N. Morris, whose proposed course "Probability: the language of uncertainty," is included in the appendix.

"I'd be very pleased to teach a course like this. I think it would be a good experience for the students and for me," Morris adds.

The current QRR draws mixed response from students.

"The test is heinous enough already," Sini says. "No one should be required to take a whole course in it. That would be sadism."

But Donald J. Rissmiller '98 says that students need the perspective offered by those classes.

"I think that Quantitative Reasoning is a skill people need but you have to wonder if the people who need it most are already taking a class like Stats 100," he says.

Deepak Sharma '97, who catagorizes the current Science Core courses as "pretty fluffy," says giving more weight to the QRR is a good idea.

"There are a lot of people here who just study for the QRR the night before, pass it and never look at a math textbook again."

Susan W. Lewis, director of the Core program, estimates that a QRR area would require one to one-and-a-half years of recruiting professors and reviewing course proposals before it could begin offering classes.

Less Is More?

While admitting that "such a move will help but will not fully solve" problems with the dwindling number of Core courses offered, the CRC recommends reducing the current number of required courses by one.

"The question to ask is whether [reducing the requirements] is a step in the wrong direction," Knowles says. "The committee was responsive to the concerns that the Core was too constraining. It was a pragmatic solution rather than an idealistic one."

Under the proposal, students would be required to fill six areas designated by concentration, and would choose their seventh Core course from two remaining catagories. The current system of exemptions from the remaining areas would be preserved.

For instance, a Biology concentrator would be required to take a class from the Foreign Cultures, History, Literature, Art/Music, Moral Reasoning and Social Analysis selections. The seventh Core course could be taken in either History or Literature. Biology concentrators would be exempt from the Physical Science, Life Science and Quantitative Reasoning requirements.

Jorge I. Dominguez, Thomson professor of government and chair of the Core subcommittee on Historical Studies, says he will support whatever legislation the CRC presents, but was not convinced less requirements were necessary.

"I'm not persuaded of the need to go from eight to seven courses. I need to be shown that the constraint comes from the Core, and not from concentrations or the student's own choice," Dominguez says. "A pre-med English concentrator is going to have a tough time, but he or she is an intelligent student and that's a choice they didn't have to make."

Rebecca A. Dean '99, a pre-med English concentrator, says Core requirements on top of her concentration and pre-medical courses forced her to take five classes this semester.

"I don't like all the requirements," Dean says. "If I want to study something different, I shouldn't have to take five classes to meet the Core requirements."

President Neil L. Rudenstine says he is sympathetic to the plight of students like Dean, and is supportive of the CRC's proposal.

"As I've gone around to undergraduates in the past few years, I would say that the one criticism I've heard more than others has been not enough flexibility with respect to electives," Rudenstine says.

"There's only so much one can give, but I think moving that bar a little further down will help," he adds.

Sarah K. Hurwitz '99, who co-authored an Undergraduate Council proposal on the Core, says she didn't feel the recommendations addressed the true problem.

"I respect the intent of the change from eight to seven--they're trying to allow for more flexibility, but I don't think lowering the number of courses by one really does that," Hurwitz says.

"There are still several Core areas in which there aren't enough classes to take, and the only real way to create flexibility is to allow for a number of departmental courses to serve as Cores," she adds.

Other recommendations in the paper include encouraging Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles to consider strongly reducing section size in the Core and increasing the number of junior Faculty teaching Core courses.

Currently, 93 percent of the Core courses are taught by senior Faculty members.

Other Options?

In the Undergraduate Council's proposal on the Core, departmental bypasses were praised as a way of adding course offerings without requiring extra effort from professors.

"I don't mind taking departmental classes. My Cores are usually huge and stupid," says Dean. "I think other classes in the department would just be better classes."

Entering the Core requires a rigorous examination process and continual monitoring, supervision which can deter professors from seeking Core certification.

Dominguez says that the process of submitting a syllabus for Core committee review is often an unpleasant one for professors.

"The Committee does the unthinkable: it says that syllabus isn't good enough. Most Harvard Faculty have never heard that in their lives," he says. "Most professors just don't want to be told how to teach their courses."

The Director of the Core program admits that the process for admitting courses into the Core is not pleasant for the professor.

"There's a strong feeling that courses in the Core be vetted and monitored, which isn't really possible outside of the program," Lewis says. "There's no reason why a professor would want to subject himself to the kind of scrutiny that a Core course requires."

Under the current system, a few departmental classes have been absorbed into the Core--Historical Studies A-12: "International Conflicts in the Modern World," also an introductory government class, is a prominent example.

While the CRC opposes replacing the Core with a system of departmental bypasses, the working paper does recommend that "Core subcommittees expand their mechanisms for reviewing requests (petitions) from qualified students who wish to meet Core requirments with department courses which specifically require advanced background and skills."

"Departmental courses are not designed to fulfill the same purposes as Core courses," the CRC paper asserts, citing a lack of historical and literary background in non-Core departmental classes.

"In this sense, the substitution undercuts the basic philosophy and purpose of the Core," it concludes, predicting that a wide-open departmental bypass system would offer no incentive for professors to submit to Core scrutiny.

"Basically, a system of departmental bypasses would gradually destroy the Core," Dominguez said. "There would be no reason for faculty to bring their courses into the Core, and we'd wind up with departmental courses and aging Core courses, and the interests of non-concentrators would get lost."

What next?

Verba says informal and formal discussions of both proposals will continue through the April faculty meeting, and that he hopes to have legislation prepared for a May vote.

"I think the initial reaction has been very good. The Faculty has a variety of views, but in general they've been favorable," Verba says. "The next stage is talking to a lot of people, and these discussions will be the basis for converting those proposals into legislation."

He adds that several forums for undergraduate input will be held in the weeks following Spring Recess.

Rudenstine says he is looking forward to the Faculty meeting debates.

"As far as I can see the committee has done an extremely thorough, thoughtful job, and the directions they pointed in are very thoughtful directions," Rudenstine says. "I'll certainly want to listen to the discussion and debate. . .and who knows what ideas will emerge from that."

Knowles says the heart of the Core must be remembered in the debate.

"Our Core is not about a single body of facts, but rather an education in areas remote from your concentration, about how to think," he says.

"I should like to think that a physics concentrator picks up Trollope with excitement at 40," he adds. "And at 40 a philosophy concentrator wonders about what causes the tides.

The Quantitative Reasoning Requirement (QRR) test, since 1974 a rite of passage for first-years, would be phased out under the CRC's plan, its primary-colored study books deemed "too brief an exposure for our undergraduates, given the clear need for greater fluency in quantitative matters," in the working paper.

"Quantitative Reasoning is certainly worth reconsidering," Larash says. "There's a feeling that an educated person should have some tools and intellectual sophistication to approach a world where quantitative things are so prevalent."

In an appendix to the report, the committee lists possible course offerings in the QRR, including courses in demographics, behavior in high-risk situations and mathematical modeling.

"Two of us are contemplating courses in the new requirement, and we're very enthusiastic if that's the way it all works out," says Statistics Department Chair Carl N. Morris, whose proposed course "Probability: the language of uncertainty," is included in the appendix.

"I'd be very pleased to teach a course like this. I think it would be a good experience for the students and for me," Morris adds.

The current QRR draws mixed response from students.

"The test is heinous enough already," Sini says. "No one should be required to take a whole course in it. That would be sadism."

But Donald J. Rissmiller '98 says that students need the perspective offered by those classes.

"I think that Quantitative Reasoning is a skill people need but you have to wonder if the people who need it most are already taking a class like Stats 100," he says.

Deepak Sharma '97, who catagorizes the current Science Core courses as "pretty fluffy," says giving more weight to the QRR is a good idea.

"There are a lot of people here who just study for the QRR the night before, pass it and never look at a math textbook again."

Susan W. Lewis, director of the Core program, estimates that a QRR area would require one to one-and-a-half years of recruiting professors and reviewing course proposals before it could begin offering classes.

Less Is More?

While admitting that "such a move will help but will not fully solve" problems with the dwindling number of Core courses offered, the CRC recommends reducing the current number of required courses by one.

"The question to ask is whether [reducing the requirements] is a step in the wrong direction," Knowles says. "The committee was responsive to the concerns that the Core was too constraining. It was a pragmatic solution rather than an idealistic one."

Under the proposal, students would be required to fill six areas designated by concentration, and would choose their seventh Core course from two remaining catagories. The current system of exemptions from the remaining areas would be preserved.

For instance, a Biology concentrator would be required to take a class from the Foreign Cultures, History, Literature, Art/Music, Moral Reasoning and Social Analysis selections. The seventh Core course could be taken in either History or Literature. Biology concentrators would be exempt from the Physical Science, Life Science and Quantitative Reasoning requirements.

Jorge I. Dominguez, Thomson professor of government and chair of the Core subcommittee on Historical Studies, says he will support whatever legislation the CRC presents, but was not convinced less requirements were necessary.

"I'm not persuaded of the need to go from eight to seven courses. I need to be shown that the constraint comes from the Core, and not from concentrations or the student's own choice," Dominguez says. "A pre-med English concentrator is going to have a tough time, but he or she is an intelligent student and that's a choice they didn't have to make."

Rebecca A. Dean '99, a pre-med English concentrator, says Core requirements on top of her concentration and pre-medical courses forced her to take five classes this semester.

"I don't like all the requirements," Dean says. "If I want to study something different, I shouldn't have to take five classes to meet the Core requirements."

President Neil L. Rudenstine says he is sympathetic to the plight of students like Dean, and is supportive of the CRC's proposal.

"As I've gone around to undergraduates in the past few years, I would say that the one criticism I've heard more than others has been not enough flexibility with respect to electives," Rudenstine says.

"There's only so much one can give, but I think moving that bar a little further down will help," he adds.

Sarah K. Hurwitz '99, who co-authored an Undergraduate Council proposal on the Core, says she didn't feel the recommendations addressed the true problem.

"I respect the intent of the change from eight to seven--they're trying to allow for more flexibility, but I don't think lowering the number of courses by one really does that," Hurwitz says.

"There are still several Core areas in which there aren't enough classes to take, and the only real way to create flexibility is to allow for a number of departmental courses to serve as Cores," she adds.

Other recommendations in the paper include encouraging Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles to consider strongly reducing section size in the Core and increasing the number of junior Faculty teaching Core courses.

Currently, 93 percent of the Core courses are taught by senior Faculty members.

Other Options?

In the Undergraduate Council's proposal on the Core, departmental bypasses were praised as a way of adding course offerings without requiring extra effort from professors.

"I don't mind taking departmental classes. My Cores are usually huge and stupid," says Dean. "I think other classes in the department would just be better classes."

Entering the Core requires a rigorous examination process and continual monitoring, supervision which can deter professors from seeking Core certification.

Dominguez says that the process of submitting a syllabus for Core committee review is often an unpleasant one for professors.

"The Committee does the unthinkable: it says that syllabus isn't good enough. Most Harvard Faculty have never heard that in their lives," he says. "Most professors just don't want to be told how to teach their courses."

The Director of the Core program admits that the process for admitting courses into the Core is not pleasant for the professor.

"There's a strong feeling that courses in the Core be vetted and monitored, which isn't really possible outside of the program," Lewis says. "There's no reason why a professor would want to subject himself to the kind of scrutiny that a Core course requires."

Under the current system, a few departmental classes have been absorbed into the Core--Historical Studies A-12: "International Conflicts in the Modern World," also an introductory government class, is a prominent example.

While the CRC opposes replacing the Core with a system of departmental bypasses, the working paper does recommend that "Core subcommittees expand their mechanisms for reviewing requests (petitions) from qualified students who wish to meet Core requirments with department courses which specifically require advanced background and skills."

"Departmental courses are not designed to fulfill the same purposes as Core courses," the CRC paper asserts, citing a lack of historical and literary background in non-Core departmental classes.

"In this sense, the substitution undercuts the basic philosophy and purpose of the Core," it concludes, predicting that a wide-open departmental bypass system would offer no incentive for professors to submit to Core scrutiny.

"Basically, a system of departmental bypasses would gradually destroy the Core," Dominguez said. "There would be no reason for faculty to bring their courses into the Core, and we'd wind up with departmental courses and aging Core courses, and the interests of non-concentrators would get lost."

What next?

Verba says informal and formal discussions of both proposals will continue through the April faculty meeting, and that he hopes to have legislation prepared for a May vote.

"I think the initial reaction has been very good. The Faculty has a variety of views, but in general they've been favorable," Verba says. "The next stage is talking to a lot of people, and these discussions will be the basis for converting those proposals into legislation."

He adds that several forums for undergraduate input will be held in the weeks following Spring Recess.

Rudenstine says he is looking forward to the Faculty meeting debates.

"As far as I can see the committee has done an extremely thorough, thoughtful job, and the directions they pointed in are very thoughtful directions," Rudenstine says. "I'll certainly want to listen to the discussion and debate. . .and who knows what ideas will emerge from that."

Knowles says the heart of the Core must be remembered in the debate.

"Our Core is not about a single body of facts, but rather an education in areas remote from your concentration, about how to think," he says.

"I should like to think that a physics concentrator picks up Trollope with excitement at 40," he adds. "And at 40 a philosophy concentrator wonders about what causes the tides.

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