Reasoning in and About the Core

Harvard has long been America’s preeminent educational institution. Earlier this fall, at President Summers’ installation ceremony, Yale University President Richard
By Mollie H. Chen and Megha M. Doshi

Harvard has long been America’s preeminent educational institution. Earlier this fall, at President Summers’ installation ceremony, Yale University President Richard C. Levin stood on the steps of Memorial Church and admitted that it is to Harvard that the “whole world looks for leadership.”

Leadership, perhaps. Curricular models, not so much. While Harvard may lead the nation’s colleges in prestige, few look at its current Core program with anything resembling envy. Columbia University’s rigid “Great Books” system and Brown University’s complete absence of Core requirements are the two curricular extremes of the Ivy clique. Harvard’s Core program stands right in the middle, with a curriculum that’s more than a distribution requirement and yet not quite the shining beacon of liberal arts education that it was meant to be.

The Core curriculum was created in 1979 with the best of intentions and the loftiest of goals. Proponents of the system saw it as a way to ensure that Harvard graduates were not only educated in a particular subject but also familiar with “the major approaches to knowledge” in several key areas, to quote the official Core website. The philosophy of the Core Curriculum, the website’s mission statement explains, is that if students are familiarized with different ways of critical thinking about cultural, social, historical, and scientific problems instead of told to master “a set of Great Books” or digest “a specific quantum of information,” they will be equipped “to pursue additional knowledge which they may need to or wish to acquire later on in life.”

This is not an uncontroversial position. Many academics believe that students at a liberal arts institution should learn a specific body of knowledge. But conversations with administrators, professors and students at Harvard found a general acceptance of the Core’s fundamental philosophy, as well as some criticism of the means by which its goals are achieved and a general undergraduate apathy. More often than not, students view the requirements as something to get done as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Last spring, a Crimson editorial called for the replacement of the entire Core curriculum with a distribution requirement that “preserves the balance of the existing Core while removing the current system’s arbitrary obstacles.” Nearly all of the criticisms of the Core focus on the number of courses offered. From this main defect stems a laundry list of related complaints, including massive class sizes and conflicting lecture times.

The problems with the Core proved serious enough to warrant an 18-month-long study by the Faculty Core Review Committee in 1997. As a result of the study, a new Core area, Quantitative Reasoning, was created. In addition, the Standing Committee on the Core began its efforts to reform the system, most visibly by increasing the number of courses in each area. However, four years later, it has not yet been able to meet the 12-course minimum in each area. This year, though several Core areas have increased their offerings, only three meet that requirement.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan M. Pedersen ’81-’82 says her main concern as a member of the Standing Committie has been expanding the number and range of courses offered. “I think the students’ concerns about the range of offerings are entirely legitimate,” she says.

Adding courses to the Core is difficult, professors say. Most of the time, members of the Core subcommittees themselves must actively recruit faculty members to create and teach courses. Music department chair Thomas F. Kelly is not technically responsible for generating Literature and Arts B courses, the area that includes music. Kelly and his colleagues have nonetheless tried to recruit faculty to teach new classes. “We talk to people and tell them how much fun it is to teach in the Core,” Kelly says. “Of course,” he adds, “I can’t make anyone do anything.”

Andrew Gordon, Chair of the Historical Studies Subcommittee, has also made efforts to find professors to create new Core courses. He is currently speaking with eight faculty members about possible classes. Of the eight, however, only two came to him unsolicited. “If we just sat back and waited,” he says, “there would not be much progress. We’ve gone out, knocked on doors, begged, and cajoled.”

Faculty members are most often wary of teaching Core classes because they tend to be the largest and most unwieldy offered by the College. As Dean Susan Lewis, director of the Core Program, points out, students are often unaware of the huge amount of effort required to teach large classes. “[It requires] more section leaders and a much greater variety of course-related things to worry about. It’s a huge amount of pedagogical and administrative concerns, and this is a deterrent [for professors],” Lewis says.

Student apathy is another obstacle which Core-teaching professors must overcome. Professor of Japanese History Harold Bolitho teaches “Constructing the Samurai,” a Literature and Arts C course that attracted so many students this fall that it had to be lotteried. Nevertheless, Bolitho says, “You often get students who don’t want to be there. You get students whose eyes are on something else.”

An alternative to recruiting professors to teach in the Core is offering more departmental courses that count toward a particular Core requirement. While the faculty has increased the number of cross-listed departmental courses over the past year, students still complain about irrational inflexibility.

“I’m taking Applied Math 21a because I thought it would count for my Quantitative Reasoning Requirement, but because of certain administrative rules that the Core has, it hasn’t been approved,” says Janet L. Kim ’04. “I’m really frustrated because if it doesn’t count. I’ll have to take Magic of Numbers of something, even though [Applied Math 21a] is so much harder. I just think the Core office is overly rigid in the standards it places for classes to be substitutes for Cores.”

In defense of the Core, Lewis explains that requirements are kept strict because each course must meet the specific guidelines for its particular area. For example, a requirement for all Historical Studies A courses is that they must cover both distant and present-day history. While courses outside the Core may be more rigorous or appealing, they do not necessarily meet the guidelines. Another problem is that department courses may be rigorous even if they carry no prerequisites, demanding too much from non-concentrators.

On the flip side, some Cores demand too little, turning into a watered-down survey of information. “The professor [of Historical Studies A-73: ‘The Political Development of Western Europe,’ Peter Hall] started the semester saying that this course would be particularly frustrating for those interested in studying European history,” Barbara J. Eghan ’05 says. “The course is basically a survey that spans a period of 800 years during the semester. Every week, the readings bring up interesting questions regarding the material we cover, but it’s frustrating that we never have the opportunity to explore the answers to those questions before moving on to the next topic,” she says.

The Core has been bemoaned and analyzed more than it has been reformed. Those on both sides of the lectern have come to accept the good with the bad. Despite his complaints, “Samurai” prof Bolitho says he enjoys teaching in the Core because it allows him to access students who have little previous knowledge of his specialty. “I like teaching non-concentrators,” he says. “I don’t want to teach Japanese history to just history majors.”

Others downplay the effects of cross-listing and large classes. When professor Robert Kiely’s English 13: “The English Bible” was offered as a cross-listed class in the Core, the course’s size nearly doubled, jumping to 208 students from just 125 last year. “It’s not too big of a problem. We’re in Harvard Hall 104, so I can still see faces,” Kiely says. “It may be true that [non-concentrators] bring less background with them to the course, but that’s true in any class. Some people will always be better prepared than others.”

Students aren’t pulling their hair out over the Core. For the most part, Harvard students accept it, flawed and ineffective as it may seem, as a fact of life. Some attempt to genuinely take advantage of its format, while others specifically search for the easiest ways to fufill their requirements.

“I think the Core is a great idea, and I’m glad to be forced to take classes in subjects that I otherwise would not,” confesses Laura E. Weidman ’04.

“I don’t feel like [course size] has much of an impact on what I do in a class, and [it] doesn’t keep me from taking a Core class,” Kyle D. Hawkins ’02 says. “I am almost drawn to Core courses that are really big because that means they are fun or popular or easy. In fact, I’ll stay away from classes that have like 30 people because that usually means that the professor is bad or the class is really hard.”

Others haven’t given it much thought.

“I guess I’m more apathetic than anything else. I haven’t really considered what kind of classes I would have taken without [the Core],” Leif G. Drake ’03 admits.

There are students who love the Core. There are also students who hate the Core. When pressed, many fail to express a preference either way. Consumed by lab reports, club meetings, and research papers, however, they are preoccupied with more pressing matters.

“I’ve definitely taken some bad Core classes, but I’ve definitely take some good ones too. I think that a lot of [the complaints are] just talk,” Hugo F. Mallinson ’02 says. “People enjoy bitching about the Core more than they actually dislike it.”

In The Meantime