Learning a Little of Everything

Three and a half years ago when I first arrived at Harvard, the Core program didn't strike me as all that bad. Eight distribution requirements sounded manageable, and I half-liked the idea of being told to study in a number of disciplines, the better to round out a college career spent largely trying to understand two dead languages.

I imagined myself filling the holes in my general knowledge bank, studying a little economics here, a little Russian literature there, and maybe a bit of evolution to top it all off. I still believe in the catchy statement made by President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877: "Every educated person should know a little of everything and something well." But seven semesters later, even as I sit enrolled in my last two Core requirements (actually lovely classes, both), I've gotten over my ignorant affection for the Core and come to the stunning conclusion reached by hundreds of smarter people years ago: It just doesn't work.

There are many reasons it doesn't work, of course, including problematic divisions of subject area, a refusal on the part of the Faculty to let enough concentration courses count for Core credit and the general difficulty you would always find in trying to administer a College-wide system of education. Thousands of us fulfill Core requirements each semester, but it often seems as though the Core Office treats those requirements the same way we do: as classes to check off the list, not as individual golden opportunities to teach students something new. The Core is at the bottom of everyone's priority list, and that lack of concern shows most clearly in the inexperience of many teaching fellows called on to teach in classes where they have no expertise.


I know that this isn't news, and the Core program would rightly point out that they face a challenge every semester trying to offer a variety of choices within each Core department while trying to enroll as many students as possible in the most popular classes. But that catch-22 of variety and high enrollment too often results in a fleet of pinch-hitting TFs teaching students who, painful as it may seem, would have been better off being lotteried out of the class.

Here's the problem: Graduate students are specialists in certain areas--that's why they're grad students. They came here to learn a discipline to be able to teach it on a college level, and while they may be a little rocky starting out, they'll most likely improve their pedagogy as years go by if they're teaching what they know. But if you take a young grad student who's never taught before and throw her or him into a class on a subject about which he or she is even vaguely uncertain, it's a recipe for disaster.

Of my eight core classes, six have been taught by graduate students outside the topic field of the class. Three were teaching fellows called in at the last minute to accommodate an unexpectedly large class size. At the time, I appreciated being able to take the class and didn't mind so much that my tf was effectively substitute teaching, but the overall learning experience suffered as a result (and I'm sure it wasn't that much fun for the TF, either).

It's true that there are several professors here who genuinely love the Core and have made substantial contributions to it by creating accessible, interesting classes which are staffed by knowledgeable graduate students in the professor's department. Unfortunately, those classes are rare gems in a dull sea of mediocre offerings which could be great but aren't.

There have been many suggestions made about the Core over the years, ranging from "trash it!" to "reform it" to "we like it just the way it is" (stand up if you're in the last category and see how many are standing with you...), but nothing has really changed. Yes, more classes have been added, and there are a more concentration classes counting for credit these days, but the Core looks pretty much as it did when I was a first-year.


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