Replacement of Core Uncertain

Faculty split on what Harvard College Courses should cover

Friday’s first Faculty-wide discussion of the Harvard College Curricular Review this year revealed fundamental disagreements among professors over the nature and purpose of the general education program recommended to succeed the Core Curriculum.

Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, the only professor to sit on both last year’s Working Group on General Education and this year’s Committee on General Education, began the discussion by saying that though his committee has not yet reached any decisions, “there is a shape” to the hypothetical system they will recommend to the Faculty.

Sandel, who moderated the discussion in the second-floor Faculty room in University Hall, said that their recommendations would be similar to those made last April by the 54 participants in the first stage of the review in which the working group recommended the replacement of the Core with a set of distributional requirements and foundational, interdisciplinary Harvard College Courses. Unlike today’s Core classes which emphasize “modes of thought,” the proposed Harvard College Courses are more focused on facts the Faculty thinks students should know.

The hypothetical curriculum Sandel presented to the more than 100 professors in attendance suggested making students take classes in the humanities and arts. the social sciences and the natural sciences, in addition to requirements in history, moral reasoning and quantitative reasoning.

But it became clear throughout the afternoon that professors are overwhelmingly undecided about what the general education system should look like. In an impromptu straw poll taken by Sandel towards the end of the over two-hour discussion, approximately 12 professors said they would favor a system of strict distributional requirements, while about twice that number voted in favor of a distributional system that would include Harvard College Courses.


The majority of the more than 100 professors in attendance did not vote and some questioned whether it was appropriate to vote at this time given that an official vote will not be taken until this spring, at the earliest.

“Any vote is premature,” said Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Rev. Peter J. Gomes.


Preliminary suggestions from faculty members for Harvard College Courses included courses on world history, the nature of color, the European novel from Cervantes to Kafka and a course that would study seven works of art.

But whether the Harvard College Courses should exist at all soon became a topic of discussion.

Professor of Comparative Literature Susan R. Suleiman was the first to question the necessity of Harvard College Courses.

“We should maybe think about a simple distribution requirement,” Suleiman said. “It’s not very sexy, but it might be good.”

Cabot Professor of Biology Richard M. Losick defended Harvard College Courses because they would bring student inquiry more in line with how the faculty is increasingly approaching research.

“The science that we practitioners engage in has become interdisciplinary, but the way we teach has not,” he said.

He said the proposed courses will provide an opportunity for interdisciplinary work not allowed by study purely within traditional departments.