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As Harvard kicks off its first curricular review in three decades, there is great news at hand. In spite of complaints from a number of sulky students and a few unenthused faculty members, the Core Curriculum continues to flourish. Indeed, the Core forms the heart of the liberal arts education for all students at this elite Ivy League college—and looks set to do so for many years to come.
Unfortunately, the college is Columbia and their Core resembles Harvard’s only vaguely more than it does an apple’s. Although, with any luck, after several years of investigation and deliberation, Harvard will again possess a Columbia-style Core which forces students to grapple with the many of history’s greatest literary and philosophical works.
Speaking last October at his installation ceremony, University President Lawrence H. Summers seemed in no doubt about the shortcomings of Harvard’s Core. “[Harvard is a] University, where few would admit—and none would admit proudly—to not having read any plays by Shakespeare or to not knowing the meaning of the categorical imperative, but where it is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome or the meaning of exponential growth.” Unfortunately, as Summers may now know after a year in the job, it is, in fact, extremely common for hundreds of students to graduate Harvard each year without reading a chapter of Kant or an act of Macbeth while in Cambridge. The task for those involved in the review of undergraduate education must not only be to improve the quality of scientific education to prepare students for the technological developments of the next century but also to revitalize the teaching of the humanities to ensure that the students do not lose touch with cultural developments of the past three millennia.
The key to improving the Core lies in abandoning once and for all the bogus philosophy that its goal should be to introduce students to “ways of thinking” instead of “bodies of knowledge.” Fortunately, when interviewed, Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71, who will play a central role in the review process, did not seem unduly wedded to that hokum. “It is not that easy to differentiate between teaching students ways of thinking and bodies of knowledge,” he said. “The best Core courses choose really significant material to introduce intellectual concepts.”
Which brings one swiftly to Morningside Heights, where Columbia’s Core promises to deliver “wide-ranging perspectives on significant ideas and achievements in literature, philosophy, history, music, art, and science.” As a result, all Columbia graduates must have read the literature of, among others, Homer, Dante and Montaigne as well as the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and Locke. And, yes, Shakespeare and Kant are also featured. The implicit logic behind Columbia’s list of mandatory texts is that some works are especially worthy of study, either for aesthetic or historical reasons. That said, Columbia has been willing to adapt its curriculum over time and, to popular acclaim, recently added the Koran to reflect the increasingly multicultural society in which the institution found itself. And, lest anyone decry the Columbia system as close-minded, it should be noted that, in addition to the Euro-centric humanities requirements, students there must take two semesters of classes that examine non-Western cultures to a far greater depth than Harvard’s Foreign Cultures Core requirement mandates.
Meanwhile, Harvard students can happily fulfill their Literature and Arts A requirement with, say, “Women Writers in Imperial China: How to Escape from the Feminine Voice.” It may, in fact, be a fascinating class to take—but studying, as this year’s Course Catalogue puts it, “how the marginal status of [imperial Chinese] women’s literature affected the genres women wrote in and the subjects they could deal with” is clearly no substitute for a comprehensive tackling of the major canonical writers. Many of the Core classes at Harvard would make excellent options for departmental credits. They should not, however, be the centerpieces of a first-rate liberal arts education. The Columbia Core forces their students to emerge as well-read, cultured adults; the Harvard Core also allows students that possibility (if they choose sagely), but, equally, permits them to escape with gaping holes in their bodies of knowledge.
The major problem with adopting the Columbia system is, as Gross notes, the likelihood of “acrimonious debate” about which works should be included in the amorphous cannon. One person’s Great Books is another’s list of books that grate. It is no easy task to devise a mandatory humanities curriculum, and many would, doubtless, be unhappy with the result if Harvard tried. However, that is no reason to shy away from the challenge—and, with a little inspiration and plenty of perspiration, a committee made up of administrators, faculty and elected students could ultimately succeed in drawing up a workable selection of worthy texts. The process would be arduous and maybe even “acrimonious”: but using that as a reason to preserve the current lackluster system is nothing short of cowardly.
Professor Eileen Gillooly, Director of the Core Curriculum at Columbia, characterized today as a “Golden Age” for Columbia’s curriculum, as students and faculty rally behind the study of “books that raise important questions and highlight significant conflicts that have intrigued and puzzled people for a very long time.” With some luck, this semester’s launching of the curricular review at Harvard could kick start a process to refashion the humanities portions of our Core from an intellectual crapshoot into something closer approximating the stimulating model offered by Columbia. After all, as Summers might say, it is a categorical imperative that every Harvard student studies Shakespeare while in Cambridge.
Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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