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Review To Suggest Core’s Replacement

Report will recommend the creation of broad-based Harvard College courses to help fulfill a more flexible distribution requirement

Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, who is leading the curricular review, stands in front of his honorary degrees from Chinese universities in his University Hall office.
Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, who is leading the curricular review, stands in front of his honorary degrees from Chinese universities in his University Hall office.
By Ella A. Hoffman and Laura L. Krug, Crimson Staff Writerss

For 25 years, the Core curriculum has served as the cornerstone of a Harvard College education.

For nearly as long, it has been widely maligned.

A Crimson poll conducted in December found that 38.3 percent of students believed that reviewing general education and the Core was the most important issue to be addressed in the current curriculum review, which Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) William C. Kirby kicked off in October 2002.

Advising, the second-most popular student choice, received about half as many votes as a curricular review top priority in that poll.

When the leaders of the review present recommendations for curricular revision to the Faculty early next month, they are likely to recommend replacing the existing Core with a more flexible distribution requirement.

Under the proposal, students will be required to fulfill a set of distribution requirements either with departmental classes or a set of general education classes open to all students—somewhat like those in the Core—called the Harvard College courses.

But these may not be mandatory—students will likely be able either to take departmental courses or the Harvard College courses to fulfill general education requirements, Kirby says.

“It has been suggested that the Harvard College courses will be one means of fulfilling a general education requirement, but not the only means,” Kirby says.

He adds that the new Harvard College courses, unlike the Core, will be “foundational or integrative in nature.”

The new curriculum would try to cross academic disciplines, perhaps by encouraging Faculty members to co-teach various courses, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 says.

The Core’s organization by “modes of thought” will be replaced by an organization based on foundational knowledge of certain disciplines, professors say.

The new organization will be a simpler one, from all accounts—the Harvard College courses will likely be divided into fewer areas than the Core now includes.

Gross says the new requirements, whose categories have not yet been determined, will be more “open” than the Core. But he adds that popular Core classes will have a place in the new curriculum.

“Many [Core courses] are among the great courses in the history of Harvard, and whatever format general education takes in the future...the commitment of the Faculty to courses such as have been developed in the Core inevitably will be part of it,” he says. “These courses will surely not disappear.”

In other words, it will be proposed that the Core curriculum that has served Harvard for over 25 years be replaced by a more flexible distribution requirement in which a body of freestanding, extra-departmental classes will still be available to any student.


In working to design such a new general education model, professors and administrators have emphasized one central theme of the review itself—more student choice.

“The goal would be to provide students with more flexibility,” Gross says, “while still giving a strong indication of what courses the faculty would recommend for a general education.”

Kirby also emphasizes the review’s concern with additional curricular freedom for students.

“What has been discussed is broadly a curriculum of opportunities, not requirements,” he said.

To that end, those involved with the curricular review have worked to both innovate and compromise.

“What seems to be emerging is a more flexible distribution requirement, supplemented by some specially designed courses on large themes and important topics, geared to non-specialists,” General Education Committee member and Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel writes in an e-mail.

Professors say the new curriculum will adapt and incorporate some of the successful components of the current Core, combining them with more opportunities for students to take departmental courses or Harvard College courses to fulfill their general education requirements.

Gross says that such a combination would be a better method than either distribution requirements or the Core alone. It would mix the breadth of the latter with the established, generally-available body of courses that Harvard now offers in its 11 Core areas.

“We don’t think a simple distribution requirement would work; there needs to be a mechanism for getting the right kind of foundational courses taught,” he says.

Kirby also says that it would be recommended that the Harvard College courses be organized into a smaller number of disciplines.

“There are many excellent ideas for what individual areas should be,” he says. “There is a broad sense that the structure should be simpler. It has been widely proposed that there be fewer areas.”

Unlike existing Core courses, Harvard College courses would likely concentrate on the current state of a particular field than on modes of thought.

“Right now [the Core’s] been focused on ways on thinking. The alternative is have broader courses trying to cover what are the main ideas of twentieth century physics, for example,” says Steven J. Gortler, Goldman professor of computer science and director of undergraduate studies for computer science.

Stanfield Professor of International Peace and Committee on the Core Program member Jeffry Frieden also stresses the importance of foundational knowledge.

“I think everyone can agree that general education should provide some foundation in the basic principles of the major discipline or the major groups of disciplines. No one should get a bachelor’s degree without being familiar with the basic disciplines. But students should have a great degree of choice.”

But according to Frieden, despite changes, fundamental aspects of the Core will remain the same.

“You’ll probably recognize the Core if you come back in 10 years,” he says.


The new general education proposal will be presented to the Faculty at their May 4 meeting in a report authored by Associate Dean of the College Jeffrey Wolcowitz. Along with the rest of the review’s proposals, it will be debated by the Faculty this Spring and throughout next year, with a final vote likely a year from now.

Since Spring 2003, the Working Group on General Education has been considering a variety of curricular models.

The committee’s co-chair Eric N. Jacobsen told the Faculty in December that his committee had begun by evaluating four possible paradigms of general education: an open system, such as Brown University’s, a “Great Books” model such as Columbia’s, an open distribution requirement like that of Yale and a closed distribution requirement like the current Core curriculum.

Dozens of colleges and universities across the country employ a system of distributional requirements, whereby students must take a specified number of courses in designated academic areas. Yale, for example, which completed a curricular review in November 2003, will in the Fall require its students to take two courses in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and quantitative reasoning, as well as two writing-intensive courses.

In contrast, the Columbia core program, which was floated as an option for Harvard, demands that students take five specific classes, a number of courses in a foreign language and physical education, as well as science and non-Western cultures distribution requirements.

The open requirements system in place at Brown was the most flexible but also, according to Jacobsen, the only plan that was thrown out right in the beginning.

At Brown, students are allowed to forgo general education requirements entirely, and are trusted to build well-rounded curricula for themselves with few official guiding principles.

Before arriving at its current plan, Frieden says, the committee entertained any and all options.

“The sentiment of the working group has been very open,” Frieden said.


The Core in its current form reflects a determination on the part of Harvard’s administration to expose each of its students to different “approaches to knowledge.”

It differs sharply from its predecessor, the General Education (Gen Ed) system introduced in 1949.

Originally, Gen Ed 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.

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.

This opened the door to the current Core, a version of which then-Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky introduced to professors on Feb. 23, 1978.

But the road to the Core’s implementation was rocky.

The specific areas of the Core were fiercely debated for months among so many faculty that many faculty meetings had to be moved into larger quarters in the Science Center.

A revised version of the new curriculum came to a vote on May 2, when the Faculty adopted the Core in a landslide vote of 182-65.

The version the faculty accepted that day was made up of 10 Core areas: 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.

Since its inception the Core has been somewhat streamlined.

The original 10 Core areas have become the current seven disciplines—Foreign Cultures, Historical Studies, Literature and Arts, Moral Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Science and Social Analysis.

Students of the College when the Core was born were required to take one class in each of eight out of 10 Core areas, whereas students today must take one class in seven out of the 11 Core areas.


Given the longevity of the Core, it seems natural that some feel it is growing stale.

Many professors and students welcome the possibility of a change to general education at Harvard, complaining that the Core limits student choice.

“I don’t think the Core is any better now than it was when it started,” says Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes. “I think it’s too restrictive. I keep hearing students say that half of their academic career is taken up with requirements.”

Others say that the Core requirement presents an obstacle for any student wishing to explore new and different fields.

“The Core courses tend to obliterate all the nooks and crannies in the course catalog that students come to be interested in,” says Higginson Professor of History and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Chair of East Asian Languages and Civilizations Philip A. Kuhn. “They also suck the life out of department courses because the enrollments become too small to sustain them.”

Many students concur that fulfilling Core requirements can be frustrating.

“Right now I consider the Core a hindrance,” says Anthony A. Onah ’05.

Finding room to fit in electives around concentration and Core obligations can be difficult, according to Joy A. Cooper ’06, an African and African-American Studies concentrator who is also working to complete her premedical requirements.

“I don’t get to take interesting courses outside of my major,” Cooper says.

In addition, some students contest the seven core disciplines themselves.

“Lit and Arts B as it’s specifically defined is somewhat arbitrary,” says Onah.

Many students say that they would welcome a system that gave them more ways to fulfill their requirements.

“What I really hate is that you can’t take higher level courses like ‘Comp. Lit. 220’ and have them count for Lit and Arts A,” says Victor Y. Gao ’04. “For people who have experience and want to be able to do something higher, they should be able to.”

Both students and faculty cite flaws within the structure of Core classes as well, including a lack of uniformity in difficulty level between various Core classes.

And students say they do not always find Core classes that satisfy their interests or desire for challenge.

For example, when Chevelle L. Dixon ’07 looked for Core classes related to African and African-American studies, she came up short.

“A lot of Core classes don’t cater to African-Americans. That’s something that needs to be addressed,” she says.

And Javier A. Valle ’04 says he found little appeal in many of the classes themselves.

“Subjects that should be really interesting, like foreign cultures, are not,” he says.


But as the revised general education system is drafted and some students and faculty bemoan the existing requirements, others still question whether the Core should go away.

Member of the Committee on the Core Program and Thomson Professor of Government Richard Tuck says the Core curriculum is responsible for unique courses that don’t fit into academic departments.

“My own view is that the strength of the current Core is that it generates a lot of extremely interesting courses that might not be generated otherwise,” he says. “I think you have to judge by results and in my area, the results have been quite good.”

Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn worries that if the Core were to disappear, so would the ideology behind it—namely the thought that students should have some training in various approaches to knowledge.

“Having taught in the Core for many years and having taught in general education before it, I would be sorry to see some of the underlying goals disappear,” he says. “Students ought to be acquainted with some of the basic materials across different disciplines.”

It is a system that some professors say has worked tremendously well.

“I think the Core is a huge success. There’s an incredible number of outstanding courses, the likes of which you’d be hard-pressed to find at other universities,” says Committee on the Core Program member and Professor of German Peter J. Burgard. “What’s wonderful about these courses is that they bring together students from all over the University in a way that I do not think would happen in other [departmental] courses,” he says.

Burgard says that Core courses—whose syllabi must be approved by the Committee on the Core Program—are some of the most carefully designed courses in the University.

“No other courses in the entire University go through so much review,” he says. “That ensures a pretty high level of quality.”

In addition, the Core has also been praised for the way it functions—as a kind of “virtual department” Tuck says.

Its institutional design preserves departmental independence because Core classes are overseen by an external committee.

Burgard says he worries that without a body of courses open to all, students may fall victim to the caprices of the various departments in terms of what courses they could take to fulfill their requirements.

“It would devolve upon departments to provide the courses for distribution requirements,” he says. “But those might not be vetted as thoroughly [as Core courses], nor as much with a view toward providing access to a particular field for people from totally unrelated fields. I think [students] might end up with many fewer courses that are accessible to them.”

Burgard also disagrees with the idea that Core requirements are too extensive and should be trimmed. Instead, he faults the demanding nature of concentration requirements.

“Seven courses does not strike me as unreasonable,” he says. “I think the real problem is and always has been concentration requirements. Harvard requires over-concentration, in my opinion, to the extent that in many fields, undergraduates are essentially expected to be graduate students. This is what I call disciplinary narcissism.”

And some students say that increased flexibility may not be the right way to go; rather, it would be more important to ensure that every student departs Harvard with a basic grounding in certain areas of knowledge.

“Even now there is not comprehensive curriculum. I have gone through college and never had comprehensive skill training,” says Irene L. Sanchez ’03-’04. “There are gaps in the way it [the system] is now, and distribution would be the wrong direction.”


While current opinion of the Core remains somewhat divided, come this Spring, the Faculty will have a new general education proposal to debate.

According to Gross and several professors, a new system will be proposed which will replace the Core with the Harvard College Courses—classes based on foundational knowledge of key fields, not approaches to knowledge.

While the proposal is likely to receive a mixed reception, the review has thus far come out against the Core.

In lieu of the Core’s 11 areas, many faculty and administrators now believe that an enhanced distribution requirement is the best way to balance flexibility with the “core” knowledge necessary for the 21st century.

—Staff writer Ella A. Hoffman can be reached at

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at

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