Approaches to Knowledge?

Core classes often out of line with their purported mission, unnecessarily hinder choice

The University has had a rich and tangled history regarding the central question of what it means to receive a liberal arts education. From the rigid system of requirements that existed during the college's earliest years, to the innovations regarding distribution requirements in 1945, to the eventual middle ground of the Core curriculum created in 1979, Harvard has experienced and effected an evolution in the conception of the ideal collegiate education. However, despite having noble aims, the most recent product of Harvard's philosophical debate over the question of general education--the Core--has failed to achieve the lofty goals to which it aspires.

The ideals of the Core curriculum did not arise from an intellectual void--rather, the goal of creating well-rounded undergraduates is steeped in a long tradition at the College. The idea of a distribution requirement dates back to the end of World War II, when Professor Charles H. Taylor published a study (known as the Red Book) designed to refurbish the faltering system of general education at the College. It suggested that undergraduates be required to take two courses from three areas: the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences, and it provided for compulsory study of a certain common body of knowledge.

The significant innovation brought by the Core in 1979 was the shift of focus from a general education founded in a common body of knowledge to a more liberating focus on "approaches to knowledge" and understanding the perspectives of different disciplines.


Through this methodology it became possible to broaden the horizons of otherwise overly focused undergraduates who would not take the time to sample the different perspectives offered at the College. Such an approach avoids the difficulties that come with forcing all students to learn a prescribed, arbitrary body of "necessary" knowledge--not the least of which is deciding what material to include in the canon. However, the Core curriculum has fallen well short of its goal of creating well-rounded, broadly educated undergraduates and in fact often runs counter to this mission.

One major gap between the ideal and the reality of the Core curriculum lies in the fact that most departmental courses--which certainly employ the different "approaches to knowledge" that the Core hopes to teach--are not accepted for Core credit. It seems intellectually indefensible to argue that History 1071: "Introduction to Greek History," bestows a completely different version of the historian's perspective than Historical Study B-04: "Ancient Greek Democracy." However, according to the Core committee, the former course is not adequate to introduce students to methods of historical knowledge. Limiting undergraduates to a small selection of huge Core classes impedes rather than encourages the investigation of different approaches to knowledge and consequently hampers students' intellectual curiosity.

Another incongruence between the theory and the implementation of the Core is that courses within a particular Core area often are not linked by any discernable approach to knowledge. The economic methods of analysis employed in Social Analysis 10: "Principle of Economics," are radically different from the linguistic methods employed in Social Analysis 34: "Knowledge of Language." Similarly, the cinematic methods of analysis employed in Chinese Literature 130: "Screening Modern China" which is cross-listed for Foreign Cultures credit, bears little to no resemblance to the historical methods employed in Foreign Cultures 74: "Cultures of Southern Europe." Other core areas show similar discrepancies. Indeed, the common thread linking Core courses is tenuous at best, and it appears that the decisions to group courses in any particular Core area are largely arbitrary.

Consequently, contrary to administrative claims, easing restrictions on what courses qualify as introducing particular "ways of knowing" would actually provide little change from the status quo. However, such a reform would drastically increase student choice, and the University therefore has no reason to oppose the change.

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