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Op Eds

A 'Core' Issue

By Rachel E. Huebner

After a year at Harvard, I have seen too many fall into the Harvard trap. They have formally declared their hatred of math and science, and are trying their best to finish four years of school with as few p-sets as possible. And those who would rather complete p-sets than write essays boast about how few words they have had to write while at Harvard. It is time for Harvard to stop allowing students to graduate without taking a single legitimate science or humanities class. It’s time for a core curriculum.

Students and faculty alike continuously lament the General Education program. Last year, a report released on the program written by seven Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors only confirmed these negative feelings, declaring that the program is “failing” in many areas. These include class sizes that are too large, and the failure of Gen Eds to fulfill their purpose of “identify[ing] the fundamental value of an education.” According to the report, Gen Eds are meant to accomplish four goals: to foster civic engagement, to help students respond to change, to allow students to understand ethics, and to teach students to understand themselves through social traditions. Instead, under the current structure, Gen Eds are a fusion of a distribution requirement, which entails students taking classes in different departments, and a Gen Ed requirement—and fail at achieving either’s goal.

The problem is that we’ve already tried fixing the Gen Ed program—and it hasn’t worked. In 1978, after years of a faltering Gen Ed curriculum, the faculty voted to abolish the Gen Ed program and institute a core program in its place. The core though, which was abolished in 2008, was in many ways similar to the Gen Ed program with which we are currently familiar. Former core requirements like “Foreign Cultures” sound all too familiar to the Gen Ed “Societies of the World” requirement; “Ethical Reasoning” sounds like someone simply hit synonyms when reworking the former “Moral Reasoning” core requirement. Furthermore, students were required to complete only seven of the eleven areas of the former core.

Interestingly, the vision for the original Gen Ed program sounds similar to other schools’ current core curricula with specific required courses. The establishment of the Gen Ed program in 1946 was based on a book, General Education in a Free Society, that proposed that Harvard mandate that students take an intro humanities class entitled “Great Texts in Literature,” an intro social science class called “Western Thought and Institutions,” and one of two science courses. These interdisciplinary courses would fulfill the Gen Ed model by allowing students to learn about the Western world and classics.

Harvard needs a core curriculum, one similar to the vision of the Gen Ed program that was first put forth decades ago. The core should be similar in nature to Columbia College’s core curriculum, which has required classes all students take that equip them with essential multi-disciplinary knowledge. The core curriculum could fix many of the problems associated with the Gen Ed program that future modifications to the program might not successfully rectify.

One of the biggest problems with the Gen Ed program is that students often approach Gen Ed classes as “just a Gen Ed.” Many students take their Gen Ed classes less seriously, and search for Gen Eds that are as painless as possible. Students are not alone in approaching their Gen Eds in a more casual manner. Some professors who teach Gen Ed classes seem to take these classes less seriously, too. They promise that the workload will be light and appropriate for a Gen Ed. These professors often make statements downplaying the importance or seriousness of the Gen Ed courses they teach.

A core curriculum with required coursers could mitigate—if not eliminate—the feeling of “it’s just a Gen Ed.” Students would approach college-wide required core curriculum classes more seriously than Gen Eds, even on topics about which they were not particularly interested, because the classes would be a more formal part of the Harvard education. Though it would take a few years to fully integrate a core into Harvard, once established, it would become a central part of the Harvard experience and identity.

Another benefit of a core curriculum is that it fosters a sense of community. Current students could bond over shared learning and reading, and the required courses would become common memories shared by all alumni.

A core curriculum would also provide students with the opportunity to interact with other undergraduates with varied interests. It is not entirely clear that the Gen Ed system is successful in accomplishing this goal. For example, one may assume that there are few science concentrators enrolled in “Science and Cooking,” a class that many humanities concentrators take to fulfill their Science of the Physical Universe Gen Ed requirement. Core classes would truly bring together a diverse group of students.

While many more factors need to be considered before switching from the Gen Ed system to a core curriculum, the above criticisms are some of the salient concerns in the dialogue—and all weigh heavily in favor of changing the current system.

Rachel Huebner ’18 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Pforzheimer House.

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Op Eds