Harvard claims to provide a safety hatch for students wishing to escape the rigidity of the Core curriculum. Individuals dissatisfied with limited, overcrowded and unchallenging Core offerings may petition the Standing Committee on the Core Program and request credit for a non-Core class. However, the apparent flexibility afforded by the petition process is undermined by the rarity with which petitions are granted and the secrecy, unpredictability and seemingly arbitrary nature of Standing Committee decisions.
While the Standing Committee does grant several petitions each year, nearly all of those granted come from students who have changed concentrations late in their academic career, are pursuing a joint concentration or can show some other extenuating academic circumstance that prevents them from taking a designated Core course. Very few petitions are granted to students who simply want to learn an "approach to knowledge" from a departmental course as opposed to one recognized as part of the Core.
What's more, the Core Office is hesitant to release information about which departmental courses--outside of the few departmental courses officially recognized by the Core--have previously been accepted for Core credit, nor does it reveal the likelihood that a given petition will be granted.
Indeed, although the Core Committee claims that most departmental courses are significantly different from Core courses in ways that make them inadequate for teaching an "approach to knowledge," it provides little insight into what those differences are. Consequently, the petition process is rendered largely ornamental and provides little assistance for students wishing to broaden their academic horizons though courses more substantive and challenging than those offered by the Core.
Even those types of petitions that the Core Committee sanctions--and, to some extent, encourages--provide less flexibility than is claimed. For example, students can petition for Foreign Cultures credit for a full-year foreign language course beyond the first-year level. However, despite this provision, many foreign language courses--even those with substantial literary, historical and political components--do not pass muster with the Core Committee. The Spanish 35-36 sequence includes novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and an in-depth study of several South American countries, but petitions to receive Core credit for these courses have repeatedly been rejected by the Core Committee.
Similarly, to earn a foreign language citation, a student must take four-half courses above the first-year level, at least two of which must be third-year level or beyond. Yet even a citation does not entitle students to Foreign Cultures credit, for which they can petition only after taking yet another half-course in that language, usually at or beyond the 100 level. This seems an unreasonable burden, considering that most upper-level language courses are literary or historical, not grammatical, and offer at least as much breadth and depth as any Foreign Cultures Core.
Further inconsistencies can be found throughout the Core. Unfortunately, these problems have not been addressed, and the petition process has become more rather than less arbitrary in recent years. Students who entered the college before Sept. 1999 were given greater flexibility with respect to exemptions from the Science A and B Core areas. Those who received a score of 4 or 5 on the Advanced Placement (AP) Biology exam could receive credit for Science B, while scores of 4 or 5 on either AP Chemistry or AP Physics counted for Science A credit. (Students could not, however, receive exemptions from both Core areas.) The administration's decision to rescind these exemptions made little sense. The scientific "approaches to knowledge" taught in AP biology, chemistry and physics courses have not changed. And presumably the College does not dispute the quality of AP courses, since students are still given advanced standing credit for these courses every year.
The petition process does not provide students with the flexibility necessary for intellectual exploration. Rather, it reinforces the idiosyncrasies of a Core Program that corrals students into a few substandard courses without providing them a broad-based liberal arts education.
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