Harvard’s Long Shadow

Unlike in 1978, current review may not cause stir in academia

About 30 years after Harvard revolutionized higher education by introducing the Core curriculum, university administrators across the country say they are not expecting anything as radical or as influential from the current curricular review.

Experts from several institutions say that the increasingly competitive field of education has compelled many elite schools to engage in reform fairly frequently—ensuring that change happens regularly and making any one school’s reform less powerful.

And they say that the diverging cultures among different schools mean that the results of present-day curricular reviews are often unique to the schools that conduct them.

In fact, many of the schools that followed Harvard’s lead after its 1978 introduction of the Core do not expect to amend their curricula based on the results of Harvard’s ongoing review.


Harvard’s last major curricular review, which ran from 1974 to 1978, introduced the Core curriculum, a set of requirements that focused on distinct approaches to knowledge.

While this review’s recommendations will suggest replacing the Core with a distribution requirement that can be fulfilled either by departmental classes or broad survey classes known as Harvard College Courses, at its inception, the Core represented a dramatic approach to general education.

“I have colleagues in China who have looked to us as a model,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby told The Crimson in 2002.

Some schools in this country adopted specific areas of Harvard’s Core as part of their general education requirements.

“There seemed to be general interest in encouraging the study of foreign cultures as part of a general education,” Phyllis Keller, author of Getting at the Core, writes in an e-mail. “I believe that a few schools did pick up on the moral reasoning part of the Core.”

But Keller says she believes that Harvard’s implementation of the Core served primarily as an inspiration to other schools struggling to enact their own reforms.

“Harvard’s influence came, in my view, from the fact that we actually succeeded in getting considerable support from faculty for our proposals. That gave heart to reformers on other campuses to try again,” Keller writes.

“It wasn’t so much the particulars of the Core as the reaffirmation of general education requirements that was the main source of whatever outside influence the Core had,” Keller adds.

Former University President Derek C. Bok says that Harvard’s introduction of the Core drew both praise and criticism from others in higher education.

“It contributed to the ongoing debate about curricular reform, which is always a good thing,” Bok says.

Bok adds that one important result of Harvard’s 1978 review was that it generated new enthusiasm for undergraduate education at a time when Harvard and other universities had been increasingly focused on research and on teaching graduate students.