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Magic of Numbers

New students add QR core requirement to course load

By Tova A. Serkin, Crimson Staff Writer

As 60 or so nervous looking first-years filed into Quantitative Reasoning 28, "The Magic of Numbers," the two professors teaching the class did their best to reassure the students.

"It's a fun math course," says Benedict H. Gross, Leverett professor of mathematics. "There is nothing specific that has to be covered."

Some members of the Class of 2003 may feel lucky because they didn't have to take the dreaded Quantitative Reasoning Requirement test last week, but others grumble about their new requirement--an entire class devoted to statistical analysis.

New to the Core curriculum this year is the QRR. While returning students can avoid the dreaded fate of taking a class with numbers, first-years cannot.


Until this year, the Core lacked any math requirement for humanities

concentrators, and this worried many Faculty members.

"There is almost nothing in the contemporary world that doesn't revolve around understanding statistics, probability, and inference." Pforzheimer University Professor, and Chair of the CRC, Sidney Verba '53 told The Crimson in April. "It's really an important area to make as an area of


"People need to learn how to think quantitatively--we do live in a technological age," says Henry Ehrenreich, Clowes professor of science. "We need to understand the numerical ways of expressing trends which have to do with society in a general way. It's very reasonable to add this requirement.

Some first-years also say that they recognize the importance of taking a quantitative reasoning class even if math is not their favorite subject.

If Literature and Arts is a required area, why shouldn't statistics be one?

"I think math is as important as writing, so if they are going to make us take writing, they should make us take math." says Oliver J. Bell '03.

At the Core

Director of the Core Susan W. Lewis was quick to point out is that although there is a new category in the Core, first-years do not have any more classes than students who entered before this fall.

"There is absolutely no increase," she says. "There was never intended to be one."

The required eight Core classes remain the same, but instead of having 10 fields from which to choose, the Class of 2003 has 11.

Quantitative Reasoning is a regular part of the Core which means there is a Faculty committee overseeing it, chaired by Gross and Berkman Professor of Economics Eric S. Maskin.

Like other Cores, students who take classes in related areas are exempt from the QRR. Most introductory mathematics and statistics classes fill the requirement.

There are six classes being offered in the QRR area of the Core this year, ranging from Quantitative Reasoning 24, "Health Economics" and Quantitative Reasoning 26, "Choice and Chance: The Mathematics of Decision Making"

The number of classes is small because only first-years, transfer students and those who failed the QRR test five times need to take it.

In the coming years, the number will increase to 12--the target number for all Core areas.


This change may seem like a big change in Harvard policy for those who have been gone through the QRR rite, but first-years say it's just another requirement.

"I knew it was new because one of the booklets we got, the one on the core mentioned this was a new area," says Elias R. Sacks '03. "but I am not annoyed."

Part of his acceptance of the new requirement, Sacks says, is the type of classes the Core offers.

"Some of the classes are kind of interesting," he says. "They aren't real math classes. It's not like I have to take calc or stats."

This is certainly not an accident. Catering to a group of people who are not "math people," Professor of Mathematics Joseph D. Harris says that his course is not meant as a foundation for future study of the subject.

"Basically, I see QR28 as a sort of 'mathematics appreciation' course, to be taken in the same spirit as a music

appreciation course," he says. "This is not a practical, pre-professional course, and we are not going to expect the students to master complicated mathematical techniques any more than you'd expect the students in a music appreciation course to learn to write a symphony."

"What we do hope is that students will come out of our course with an enhanced awareness and appreciation of the mathematical mode of thought," he writes.

Even with all the attempts to make math managable, there are, of course, students who will be unhappy, and professors are aware of the challanges facing them.

"To be completely honest, I am indeed worried about students resenting the imposition of an additional requirement," Harris says.

"There's not much we can do about it," he says, "except to teach a course that'll make students glad they signed up."

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