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In the spring of 1978, as Harvard prepared to introduce its radical new Core program, one undergraduate was extremely distressed. “The Core Committee has laid out its ideal of what the liberally educated student should be like, and they have tried to devise a system to move us in that direction. What people need is exactly the opposite,” he wrote to The Crimson. “Why can’t Harvard start to look at its incoming students as unique individuals, all of whom have the capacity to develop naturally, and in the way that is right for them? We need more facilitators, helpers and collaborators in our learning—not prescribed 125 person lectures,” he lamented. The writer? “Ricky Summers ’79.”
Twenty six years later, Little Ricky’s big brother, University President Lawrence H. Summers, is preparing to oversee the implementation of a reshaped curriculum for Harvard College. And the proposals outlined in the recently completed curricular review report echo, almost precisely, Little Ricky’s thoughts. The opening paragraph of the summary of the principal recommendations concludes, “We aim to construct a curriculum that expands the choices open to our undergraduates as it prepares them to be independent, knowledgeable, and creative individuals.” The way to do that, the report concludes, is to replace what Summers The Elder termed in last year’s Commencement address “an excessively rigid notion of the Core” with a more flexible distribution requirement.
The shift has, it seems, been welcomed by a majority of students, as well it should be. The Core is a hopelessly weak concept, suited perhaps to the fractious political climate of higher education in the late 1970s, but certainly not to the best interests of Harvard undergraduates. It serves paradoxically to limit class choice without offering substantive academic guidance about which texts or concepts students should encounter during their four years in college.
It is important, though, to recognize that the curricular review proposals have not entirely abandoned the bogus philosophy which underpinned the Core—that Harvard’s general education requirement should be more about ways of thinking than bodies of knowledge. Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 put it best when I interviewed him back in late 2002: “It is not that easy to differentiate between teaching students ways of thinking and bodies of knowledge. The best Core courses choose really significant material to introduce intellectual concepts.” The trouble with the new distribution requirement, which will give the equivalent of Core credit for esoteric departmental courses, is that students will be tempted to move further and further away from engaging that “really significant material.”
Arguing that certain books are more important to read in college than others is distinctly unfashionable. But you do not need to be a raging reactionary to see that academic relativism is complete hokum. All theories are not equally valid; all works are not equally important. Consequently, there is some kind of intellectual hierarchy—and Harvard has a duty to guide its students to the things that are most crucial for them to study. For example, I deeply regret having fulfilled my moral reasoning requirement by reading the “political philosophy” espoused by the Attica prison rioters and by a group of disgruntled bus passengers in Los Angeles, bypassing Kant, Rousseau, Nietzsche and Mill. Admittedly, it was my (rookie) error to take Moral Reasoning about Social Protest instead of, say, Justice—but I really wish Harvard had not allowed me to make that mistake.
The greatest failing of Harvard’s Core is not that it offers too little choice, but too much. Adopting a Columbia-style curriculum with mandatory Great Books courses in a variety of fields would certainly have had its drawbacks, but it would also have been in the best interests of Harvard undergraduates. Sadly, such a move was never really feasible in today’s environment at Harvard—and there are better things to do than bemoan the loss of a curricular pipedream.
Moving forward, the most positive review proposal was the development of the new so-called “Harvard College Courses.” As Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby put it, these courses have been designed to provide “a rigorous foundation to a student’s education” and will “introduce bodies of knowledge, concepts, and major texts.” In theory, these courses should provide a fantastic centerpiece to a Harvard education. (Whether in practice they will be nothing more than Core classes with traditional hoop-jumping and banal response papers, of course, remains to be seen.) Still, it is excellent news that a real attempt may soon be made to restore an academic canon obscured by the nonsensical ethos of the Core.
In the future, at least students will know which classes are thought by the Harvard faculty to contain important texts, not just to introduce important methods of thought. It is, to my mind, a shame that through arrogance or indolence some students may choose to skip those courses. But their very existence will be a major step forward for undergraduate education as a whole. Regardless of whether you think Harvard students need more flexibility or less, these proposals to replace the Core should be cautiously welcomed. Little Ricky spotted it in 1978 and undergraduates, alas, still recognize it today—any step away from the Core is a step in the right direction.
Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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