Professor of German Eric Rentschler announced to the teeming masses sardined into the Carpenter Center auditorium last week that the Core office had expected less than 80 people to enroll in his class, Foreign Cultures 76, "Mass Culture in Nazi Germany." Assistant Professor of Philosophy Michael Blake was told his course, Moral Reasoning 62, "Reasoning In and About the Law" should expect 90 students. He has now moved to accommodate the 416 enrolled. Perennial favorites "The History of Life," "The Rome of Augustus" and "Fairy Tales" all have been lotteried.
Something has gone terribly wrong.
The Core program is meant to be a boondoggle for Faculty and students alike. It provides the breadth of knowledge, the theory goes, for the "breadth and depth" President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, envisioned. It is intended to give students a sense of the "approach to knowledge" in numerous fields and allowing Faculty to work on interdisciplinary projects with additional resources from outside their department.
Yet the Core Program, in practice, has an Icarus problem: By aspiring to such lofty goals in so many areas, the wax holding together professors, teaching fellows, students and resources begins to melt. The program crashes to the ground in at least one area a year, and all the participants--students and professors alike--are dashed upon the rocks.
This year, that area is Foreign Cultures. First, the numbers: Including courses that count from other Core areas, there are nine courses this year on Asia, nine on Europe and five on Latin America. There are none on Africa, none on Australia and the Pacific Islands. None on the indigenous, non-English-speaking groups from north of the Rio Grande. There aren't even any bracketed. You would think these places are Antarctica.
According to the spring 1997 Core Review Committee report, the purpose of Foreign Cultures "was to distance students from their limited environment and give them a larger perspective on the world." (The report, in an intriguing footnote, also states that originally all Foreign Cultures classes were intended to "double-count"--not just fit two areas but actually count as two Cores, to cut down on the Core courseload--yet the report states cryptically that this plan was "infeasible.") Yet, of the Foreign Culture courses this year, six of 17 were conducted in a foreign language. If the concept is to reach unfamiliar cultures, wasn't the decision to allow courses in foreign languages to eat up so much of the Core a mistake?
Surely there is merit to courses taught in the language of the culture that count for Foreign Cultures. Yet including them in the Core will eat up valuable resources in the Core Program. This becomes an argument about the Core's greatest injustice: Departmental classes cannot be taken automatically for Core credit.
The situation in Foreign Cultures is the most stark. In an e-mail message, Susan W. Lewis, director of the Core Program, wrote that while students who can blow the space of two, three or four courses in their plans of study pursuing a Foreign Cultures petition outside the Core have a relatively good rate of acceptance, "petitions to count a single department course are denied by the Foreign Cultures committee."
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