Ding, Dong, the Core Is Dead

As Gen Ed fully takes over, students and faculty question the effect of the change

When Harvard introduced its new Core Curriculum, then-University President Derek P. Bok tried to express the difficulty of overhauling the way Harvard educates College students.

“Changing undergraduate education,” he griped to the Washington Post, “is like trying to move a graveyard.”

That was 1979, and in the succeeding decades, that Core Curriculum too managed to become deeply rooted at Harvard. Then nearly thirty years later, administrators decided it was time to lay the foundation for a Harvard education anew all over again.

The resulting curriculum was the Program in General Education, which took full effect for the Class of 2013. The seniors graduating this year passed through Harvard just as the College shifted from a framework that focused on course content to one that emphasized learning methods instead. This class and the previous one had the option of fulfilling the requirements for either the old or new curriculum.

With the graduation of the Class of 2012, the Core is officially dead. But students have not quite grasped how the 56 percent of the senior class that chose Gen Ed is differently educated from their peers who stuck with the old formula. And professors still struggle to articulate the differences between Gen Ed and the Core, saying that the financial crisis that hit the College just as Gen Ed launched has hampered the new program’s potential for radical pedagogical change. As Harvard tolls the death knell of the Core, the community questions whether the College actually moved the graveyard all over again or just polished and rearranged the headstones.


According to Program in General Education Associate Director Anne Marie E. Calareso, the Gen Ed curriculum seeks to give students skills in “linking the arts and sciences with the 21st century world.” It was intended to enable students to leave college with skills to process information rather than with a specific body of knowledge.

“Gen Ed came in a post-September 11 moment of fear of how to handle the real world,” said Marc F. Aidinoff ’12, who wrote his Hoopes Prize-winning thesis on general education at post-war Harvard.

The eight required course categories of Gen Ed, geared toward preparing students to face the challenges of globalization, include Societies of the World, United States in the World, and Science of the Physical Universe.

“The resulting [Gen Ed] course list is eclectic, but the courses all center on a form of intellectual empathy, learning to think like someone who thinks very differently,” Aidinoff wrote in his thesis.

The Gen Ed curriculum aims to teach students “to connect academic work with the real world,” said Anne Harrington ’82, director of undergraduate studies in the history of science department.

In her Gen Ed course, Culture and Belief 34: “Madness and Medicine,” she discusses ways that psychiatry connects to beliefs, politics, and U.S. and European history.

“I’m very interested in connecting to these things far beyond the narrow medical sense,” Harrington said. She added that she feels “ be more directly engaging” in a Gen Ed class than in a departmental course.

Calling Gen Ed “an incubator,” she said that the institution of the new framework was an “ambitious change.” But she said that the effect of that change on professors’ teaching methods cannot yet be determined.

“Exactly how it will work, I think we’re at the beginning of that conversation,” she added.


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