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Toward a More Flexible Core

How the Core Review Committee Should Proceed

By James T.L. Grimmelmann

Comprising 25 percent of each undergraduate's program, the Core plays a major role in a Harvard education, ensuring that students experience a true spectrum of academic fields. The Faculty's Core Review Committee (CRC) has proposed to end the glaring omission of mathematics and quantitative reasoning from the current Core; this decision is to be applauded.

However, the CRC identified a serious problem with the Core that it has then failed to adequately address: the lack of flexibility it offers to students.

The Committee has stated that "constraints on choice should be sufficiently flexible to take account of the varied interests and capacities of both students and faculty." The current Core does not respect these varied "capacities," and neither would the Core as the CRC intends to amend it.

The current Core's classes are designed to meet the needs of non-concentrators with no background and thus do not meet the needs of students with greater commitment or prior experience in areas outside their concentration. A Biology concentrator with a strong history background, for example, should not be channeled into a course pitched at those without such background. This is simply not a good use of such a student's time.

Further, the current Core system heavily penalizes those who switch concentrations. A student who starts out as a History concentrator, takes two departmental history courses and then switches to English must go back and take courses in Historical Studies A and B, repeating coursework in the very area she has already taken the most courses in, all the while eating into his or her already scarce electives.

The CRC attempts to refute the claim that Core courses are easier (and thus less rigorous educational experiences) by examining grading patterns: they note that mean Core grades are lower than the introductory departmental classes in similar fields. Apparently, the Committee has never read the "welcome" issue of the Crimson, mailed to incoming Harvard first-years, which explains the distinction between a "work gut" and a "grade gut."

Most students currently put their Core courses at the bottom of their academic priorities. But students who are able to select courses appropriate to their backgrounds and abilities will have a greater investment in the courses they choose and thus will be more committed to them. The Core must be modified to allow students to strive toward their academic potential in areas outside of their concentration.

The CRC has attempted to address the Core's inflexibility by encouraging the creation of new courses and reducing the requirement from eight to seven half-courses. But the Committee's proposal does not change what kinds of courses students may take for Core credit and thus does not address the basic inflexibility within the Core itself.

Numerous departmental courses that meet the core's goals of providing breadth and tools for analysis fail to count for Core credit solely because they are aimed at concentrators: they have prerequisites or expect familiarity with material, spend less time explaining why one wants to study a subject and more time studying it, or demand more than could be expected of students seeing a subject for the first time.

It seems sensible that the Committee admit two types of courses for Core credit: Core courses intended for non-concentrators, as it does now, and certain courses offered within the departments, intended for concentrators. The difference in the target audience would distinguish the guidelines of these two approval systems.

But the requirements that the course teach methods and analytic tools used by scholars, that it teach significant subject matter, that its teaching meet certain standards and that it contribute meaningfully to the breadth of a student's education--in short, the requirement that the course meet the goals of the Core--would be applied equally to all courses counting for Core credit.

Some have objected that such a modification would "destroy" the Core. They claim that such a system would be unstable, more so than the present Core, and that it would inexorably deteriorate as faculty and students deserted en masse Core courses taught outside concentrations.

However, we do not anticipate a mass student exodus. As The Crimson has stated in its editorials, Harvard students "are not so stupid as to dive into a class for which they are ill-prepared, unless they are willing to put in extra work." Departments should still consider concentrators the primary audience of their course offerings. We have faith that professors will maintain the rigor of their courses, and thus the option of taking departmental classes for Core credit will only be used by students in areas in which they are particularly experienced or passionate.

There are many reasons why Core classes taught outside departments will continue to appeal to non-concentrators. Such classes are designed with non-concentrators in mind: they require little prior knowledge and will not put students in academic environments for which they are unprepared. Many Core courses enjoy mythic reputations for their quality, the fame and talent of their instructors and the comfortable manner in which they introduce students to unfamiliar fields.

Professors who teach in the Core cite as their first and foremost motivation the opportunity to discuss their areas of specialty with a large general audience. Teaching in the Core allows professors both to exchange ideas with students from all backgrounds and to excite students about fields in which they might never otherwise have considered coursework and concentration. Since, as we have discussed, there will be no mass student exodus, this most important motivation for faculty to teach in the Core will remain.

The factor that faculty most cite as the disincentive to teach in the Core is the arduous process by which Core courses are approved. Making this process less adversarial is a goal that should be pursued under any system. Some have claimed that if the approval process for departmental courses is less formidable than that for Core courses, faculty will not voluntarily opt to teach in the Core itself, preferring to offer departmental classes for Core credit.

We have two responses to this claim. First, the only difference between the course approval processes that we envision would be that departmental classes would not be evaluated on the basis of their suitability for non-concentrators. We sincerely hope that the level of quality, significance and breadth insisted upon will be the same for either approval process. Secondly, the Standing Committee would not approve for Core credit courses offered as departmental classes but aimed at non-concentrators. Professors genuinely interested in reaching a general audience would therefore teach within the Core itself.

A final objection to this sort of modification to the Core has been raised on occasion: that it would be too difficult to administer and would require too much work from an already strained Core program. If the current administrative system is inadequate to oversee the Core with such modification, we have faith that Harvard will modify the administration to implement whatever it feels is the best educational choice.

The approval of departmental courses for Core credit is not a radical or new plan. Faculty have suggested it. Over 4000 students signed a petition endorsing it. And the original legislation creating the Core strongly encouraged it. We hope to see the faculty give this issue the serious consideration it requires.

James T. Grimmelman '99, Sarah K. Hurwitz '99 and Benjamin A. Rahn '99 are the authors of "The Core and the Future," a report endorsed by the Undergraduate Council.

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