Constructing the Core Curriculum

This year, the College finally released the results of its examination of the curriculum. In a report, the College recommended to abolish the Core—the cornerstone of Harvard’s curriculum—and replace it with the newly approved Harvard College Courses, a general distribution requirement.

This move appears to be a step back in time, as the style of Harvard education of the future seems to mimic the curriculum prior to 1978. In that year, the College overhauled its curriculum and decided to replace the General Education requirement with the Core Curriculum. On May 11, 1979, then-Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky released the course titles of 77 courses—60 percent of which were new—that would be included in the newly established Core.

“First of all, [the Core] does add...specific emphasis on ethical choice,” then-Harvard University President Derek C. Bok told The Crimson in 1979. “And two...there is the emphasis on quantitative skills, which...about the time I went to college, was perceived as something that scientists and engineers and maybe doctors might need but not the majority, and since then there’s been a pervasive impact of quantitative forms of reasoning.”

The Core was designed to gradually phase into the College curriculum over the three years. Students would eventually have to take courses in the five areas of the Core: Science, Literature and Arts, Historical Studies, Social Analysis and Moral Reasoning. The 77 original courses included instruction in 21 classes in Literature and Arts, the largest among the five areas, as well as physics, biology, astronomy and biochemistry—but no chemistry—in the Science category, the smallest area with only eight courses.

In deciding these courses of the Core and undertaking the curricular review in the 1970s, the College encountered similar issues of today’s review—the role of science in education, as well as the importance of student input as architects of the curriculum.


Starting from the 1940s, Harvard College operated under the General Education requirements in three basic fields—Social Sciences, Humanities and Natural Sciences.

But in the 1970s, a national trend emerged as many colleges began to revise general education curricula by tightening requirements and reevaluating academic goals.

Many critics believed that the waves of general education reform did not point towards anything progressive, and that the national flurry of reforms marked a swing of the pendulum back to the way curricula were before 1960s campus activists forced many university administrations to abolish or loosen course requirements.

Indeed, Rosovsky, when taking on the task of evaluating Harvard’s undergraduate education in 1973, said that his personal views of what a “proper” education is runs decidedly against the grain of liberalized reforms of the past decade.

In his October 1975 Letter to the Faculty on Undergraduate Education, Rosovsky maintained that “the problem today is that people have too many choices.”

In an extended analogy, Rosovsky described how the Harvard curriculum was too varied for undergraduates to make intelligent decisions about their education:

“Our curriculum at the moment resembles too much a Chinese menu—a very good menu. But I think that a Chinese menu in the hands of a novice can often result in less than a perfect meal. I would like to supply a few waiters,” he said.

And Rosovsky did supply his “waiters” that would guide student choice in their course selection. On May 2, 1978, the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences approved a new Core Curriculum for undergraduates, marking the end of four years of hard work, bargaining and cajoling for Rosovsky, and the beginning of the rocky road of actually planning, implementing and seeing the Core in action.


In October 1978, Rosovsky appointed nine Faculty members on the Core committee to represent a range of fields. While the Core had been approved, this committee was charged with designing the new curriculum.