Hard Core

These days, criticism of Harvard’s Core Curriculum seems to be the vogue on campus.

Unfortunately, most of the complaints regarding the Core’s supposed lack of options and lack of rigor amount to no more than empty shibboleths and misconceptions.

One knee-jerk—and patently false—line on the Core is that its offerings are too limited. The areas that are most subjected to this criticism (because they are indeed the only ones to which it could even begin to be falsely applied) are Social Analysis, Moral Reasoning, and Foreign Cultures. Whether one considers course offerings limited in these areas depends crucially on whether or not one knows what one is talking about. Anyone who has actually inspected the course catalog with any degree of care would notice that all three of these areas have unequivocally diverse and rich offerings by almost any rational metric.

Social Analysis, for example, offers courses in economics, linguistics, medical history, political science, and archaeology, just to name a few. Moral Reasoning offers courses in contemporary ethical theory, Confucius, existentialism, justice, legal theory, and democracy—again, to name just a few. If at least one of the offerings in each of these two areas doesn’t grab your attention, what will?

And then, one of my all time favorite complaints—‘Foreign Cultures classes are limited, since most of them require a knowledge of a foreign language.’ Really? Last time I checked, there were 25, yes, 25 courses that satisfy the Foreign Cultures requirement that require only a knowledge of English. Add to this that there are only seven Foreign Cultures courses that do require knowledge of another language, and also the fact that the English-only courses cover such diverse topics as the contemporary Middle East, Mesoamerican Civilizations, Caribbean Societies, 20th century Russian culture, European Jewish culture, Korea and China. These offerings are tremendously limiting, right? How could anyone could find an interesting class with so few offerings?


I will not even mention the other eight Core areas—all of which outstrip even the extensive offerings of the three areas I’ve just described.

Another oft repeated—and easily discarded—mantra of anti-Core partisans concern the nature of the courses themselves. In particularly, people like to lament that they are not sufficiently challenged or engaged by the “watered-down” offerings of the Core. For my part, and admittedly I may just be academically impaired, I have felt extremely challenged in each of my Core classes—indeed, just as much or more than in any of my elective or concentration courses—and not a single one of the many Core classes that I’ve shopped and decided not to take has struck me as being easy either in terms of workload or level of material.

One could argue, here, that my concept of difficult is personal and does not reflect the feelings of most other students hear. To this I respond that even if Core courses seem to lack rigor, then many of the complainers seem, paradoxically, to consider this more a blessing than a curse.

That is to say, if people are concerned with the Core’s lack of rigor and the watered down nature of its courses, then I must wonder why it is that almost invariably the Cores that are rated easiest in the CUE guide (e.g. Quantitative Reasoning 28: “The Magic of Numbers” and Literature and Arts C-61: “The Rome of Augustus”) draw such large enrollments while nearly half the room shuffled out after Stanfield Professor of International Peace Jeffrey Frieden announced on the first day of Historical Study A-51: The Modern World Economy 1873–2000 that he did not intend to dilute the material, and that the class would be difficult. The hypocrisy here is patent, and, sadly, highly prevalent. One hears a abundance of whining about the lack of rigor in Core courses, but when push comes to shove, most of the complainers opt for Magic over Math 21a, “If there is no God.…” over Philosophy 174, “Matter in the Universe” over Chem. 10. Until the enrollment of the most difficult Core courses begins to swell and that of the easier ones begins to wane, it is difficult to take seriously the frequently heard line that Core courses are watered-down and lack difficulty.

This not to suggest, by any means, that the Core is perfect, or in no need of improvement. Indeed, illogical and unfounded complaints about the Core regarding its ostensible “lack of offerings” and “watered down” nature doubly perturb me because they obscure the many more legitimate, real issues that the Core committee should be thinking about. These include such things as having more departmental courses count for Core credit, and slightly lowering the extent of Core requirements (which has been the subject of recent meeting of the Committee of Undergraduate Education). As a whole, though, the Core in its present incarnation is neither limiting nor lacking in rigor. Properly navigated, it can provide all of us with a variety of challenging and interesting options in fields we would never study if we weren’t required. Yes, there is always room for improvement, but the Core right now is just fine.

Z. Samuel Podolsky ’04, a Crimson editor, is a classics concentrator in Currier House.