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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Getting to the Core of the Matter

The Core Curriculum faced an uphill battle when it was introduced to the Faculty for approval in 1978.

By Laura L. Krug, Crimson Staff Writer

On Feb. 23, 1978, then-Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky released a draft proposal to the full Faculty outlining a new curricular plan that would grow to become the Core curriculum that now frames a Harvard education.

Under the plan, undergraduates would be required to take one half-course in eight out of 10 broad areas of study—an attempted remedy for what many perceived as the disintegration of the General Education system, the curricular predecessor to the Core.

Though a vast majority of professors agreed on the need for some basic set of central academic requirements, the exact nature of those requirements was a source of debate at several tumultuous Faculty meetings.

And among students, the proposed curriculum was viewed as putting too much power in the hands of the Faculty to shape what classes they took.

Rosovsky’s proposal was revised—and re-revised—as students and professors registered frequent and often bitter criticisms for reasons both practical and philosophical.

But the Core curriculum ultimately prevailed when, in May of that year, the Faculty voted to adopt a revised version of Rosovsky’s initial proposal.

From Rotten...

The precursor to the Core curriculum was the system known as General Education (Gen Ed), adopted in 1949 during the presidency of James B. Conant ’14.

Originally, it required that students take two courses in each of three academic areas: the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. This was in addition to the Expository Writing (Expos) requirement and a stringent four-semester in-residence language requirement.

In the 1950s and 1960s, however, students demanded more courses dealing with contemporary issues, such as the structure of the American political system and energy development. The Faculty introduced many new Gen Ed courses with narrower foci, but these courses were sometimes criticized as obscure or random.

“There was no principle by which those courses were given,” remembers Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53. “If a professor was ashamed to give a course in his own department, he gave it in Gen Ed.”

In addition, by the beginning of the 1970s, the Faculty had voted to officially allow students to count departmental courses for Gen Ed credit, a move which some say “diluted” the system.

Rosovsky and his allies felt it was time for change.

In a letter to the Faculty in October 1974, Rosovsky called for a sweeping review of the curriculum, citing the “development of new fields and methodologies,” “changes in the character of the academic profession,” and the “hurried and piecemeal character” of the previous decade’s Gen Ed reforms.

“Part of what motivated the review,” says then-member of the Faculty Council and current Dillon Professor of International Affairs Jorge I. Dominguez, “was the sense that General Education was a set of courses that received very little review from any overseeing entity on the one hand, and moreover could be ignored by students who wanted to take courses in the department anyway.”

...To the Core

No formal, cohesive plan for changing the Gen Ed system was introduced until Rosovsky’s 1978 proposal.

In addition to its recommendations that students take one course from eight out of 10 academic subdivisions, the plan recommended a basic math course unless students could demonstrate competence on an achievement test. It also suggested that Expository Writing no longer count as one of the standard 32 courses needed to graduate.

Criticism of the proposed new curriculum came early, often and from all quarters.

Students expressed concern that the Core would give professors too much control over what courses they would need to take to graduate.

The Educational Resources Group (ERG), an advisory board composed of two undergraduate representatives from each House that sent student representatives to the Faculty’s Committee on Undergraduate Education, passed a resolution to express their adamant disapproval of the plan.

“The ERG unanimously declares that it rejects the Core Curriculum in its present form, and while supporting the concept of the Core, insists that substantial structural changes be made,” the statement read.

And Faculty members worried that no set of Core classes could possibly give students an adequately broad education.

The Division of Applied Sciences faculty, for example, voted 23-3 in March to go on record as opposed to the Core plan, saying it would downplay the importance of science and technology courses—as there was only one natural science half-course requirement in the initial proposal—and would discourage better students from attending Harvard.

A March Crimson poll also showed that 100 of 198 professors with stated opinions said they would not vote to adopt the Core in its present form.

Even the proctors protested. Forty of 60 first-year proctors signed a petition against the Core proposal, saying they felt they understood the needs of students better than the administrators who were the Core’s architects and that the plan would unfairly restrict students’ academic options.

“A lot of faculty were afraid that the common vocabulary that the initial ‘Red Book’ [which laid the foundation for Gen Ed] had established for students would be lost,” says Associate Dean for Faculty Development Laura G. Fisher, who was the senior tutor of Eliot House and a member of the Committee on House and Undergraduate Life at the time, “but others argued that the dilution of Gen Ed had already accomplished that.”

Realizing the lack of support for the Core, Faculty administrators agreed to make several concessions.

The Faculty Council voted to slash the proposal that Expos be an extra course requirement. And at an April meeting, the full Faculty passed two amendments, one of which allowed for the designation of specific departmental courses that could be taken in place of Core classes, and another which allowed students to “shift” a course from one Core area to another—not changing the total number of Core courses, just the distribution.

Still, the battle to gain the support of enough professors to adopt the new curriculum was a long one.

During what Dominguez calls a series of “epic” Faculty meetings—several of which were so overwhelmingly attended that they had to be held in the Science Center rather than in their customary location in the Faculty Room on the second floor of University Hall—professors hashed out the remaining controversial details of the legislation.

Finally, on May 2, the Faculty adopted the Core Curriculum in a landslide vote of 182-65.

Rosovsky began the debate on the motion on the Core plan by asking that the Faculty not vote against the Core out of doubts that it could be effectively implemented.

“I ask you to have faith in the process, in what we are trying to do,” he said. “I ask you to believe that we can surmount problems of implementation.”

Then University President Derek C. Bok asked for a vote by show of hands, and afterward, Charles P. Whitlock, then-associate dean of the Faculty, announced the final tally.

At a press conference after the meeting, Rosovsky referred to the Faculty vote as “an IOU from the Faculty to students,” to be paid off when the Core was fully implemented.

The 10 Core areas that were agreed upon were: Literature, Fine Arts, Music and Contexts of Culture, Historical Orientation, Historical Process and Perspective, Social Analysis, Moral and Political Philosophy, Physical Science and Mathematics, Biological and Behavioral Science and either Western Europe (including language) or a major non-Western culture.

Faculty members today express their enthusiasm for the changes that were implemented and their confidence that the IOU promised by Rosovsky had come to be at least partially paid.

“I have no doubt that the Core curriculum was an extraordinary improvement on the curriculum at Harvard College,” says Dominguez.

Mansfield, too, says he was pleased with the changes, pointing to what he saw as the weaknesses of the Gen Ed system.

“It was a great improvement on Gen Ed because that had fallen into commotion,” he says.

Today, Harvard sits on the brink of yet another major curricular review. A central aspect under examination will be the Core Curriculum—and whether the requirements developed 25 years ago are still the most appropriate method of ensuring breadth in the Harvard education. And as professors and students prepare to get the upcoming review off the ground, many wonder whether answering this question will be as contentious now as it was in 1978.

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at krug@fas.harvard.edu.

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