Hollow at the Core

During shopping week this spring, the undergraduate visited all of the offerings for Historical Studies B listed in Courses of Instruction—six classes, ranging from "The Emergence of a Critical Movement in Law" to "The English Revolution" to "The Development of the Modern State." Although not particularly drawn to any of them, the undergraduate had already passed the half-way mark of his time at Harvard, and it was imperative that he complete another segment of Harvard's required Core Curriculum Program. 

He settled on "World War II." As he sat taking notes in the third lecture—an interesting look at efforts to appease Germany in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles—he wondered if he had made the best possible choice. This course would provide one-half of the historical training Harvard believed he needed to be fully schooled in the liberal arts. But could a semester on the history of one war (albeit a significant one) be enough to prepare him to enter the world beyond Harvard as an educated citizen? 

The Core is always a topic of discussion among undergraduates, if only because several hundred students pack into Sanders Theatre for the more popular courses each semester. Large enrollment ensures that the course will be a buzz in the dining halls, especially just before a paper is due; one is bound to find someone else enrolled in the class without having to look very far. 

"The students bring a wide range of backgrounds and interests to the course," says Professor Michael Sandel, who leads Moral Reasoning 22, "Justice." No wonder: Sandel's is one of a few Core courses with an annual enrollment of more than eight hundred. "I enjoy the opportunity to provoke ongoing debate that carries beyond the classroom," he says. 

But lately the debate has turned to the Core itself. General complaints about requirements have become specific and angry charges about Core classes that address absurd topics. Adding insult to injury, even in cases where courses have substantive value, offerings in a few of the Gore fields have become so limited that it is almost impossible to fit one into one's schedule. Charles Barzun '97, who serves on the Select Committee on Undergraduate Requirements, says he finds the Core "ridiculous; it covers no material. The 'approaches to knowledge' plan is an evasion of duty on Harvard's part, a way of getting around the curriculum rather than having to teach it." 

The Select Committee was formed this year after Harvard/Radcliffe Undergraduate Council (UC) members approached Susan Lewis, the director of the Core Program, to discuss fundamental changes within it. Lewis challenged the UC to create a proposal detailing what undergraduates wanted; the proposal, to be completed by the end of this academic year, will be presented to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences during its reevaluation of the Core Program next spring. 

Three UC members serve on the Select Committee; the remaining 11 were chosen from applicants who responded to posters put up around campus. A group of concerned students attempting to have a logical and reasoned impact on undergraduate education, the committee meets weekly to discuss core curriculums at Harvard and elsewhere. Its birth this year is indicative of a mounting frustration throughout the community: rather than getting to the core of their education, many undergraduates feel that the Core is getting to them. 


The Core Program—perhaps even more so than paper deadlines, concentration requirements, or a senior thesis—is a fact of undergraduate life handed to each student upon entry. Created by a faculty committee in 1979 and fully implemented in 1983-84, the Core requirements, comprising a quarter of the courses an undergraduate will take in his or her time at Harvard, stand individually as Foreign Cultures, Historical Study (two courses), Literature and Arts (three courses), Moral Reasoning, Science (two courses), and Social Analysis. 

Students are exempted from the two Core fields most closely allied with their chosen concentrations; for example, Fine Arts concentrators are exempt from Literature and Arts B and C, and Environmental Science and Public Policy students needn't take Science A or B. The program was designed to complement concentration courses along with a few electives. 

The listings in Courses of Instruction are prefaced by the manifesto of the Core Curriculum, stating that it "does not define intellectual breadth as the mastery of a set of Great Books, or the digestion of a specific quantum of information, or the surveying of current knowledge in certain fields" but rather "seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education." 

The current Core debate among undergraduates focuses on whether those approaches are effective or complete in themselves, as well as on whether all the courses approved for the Core successfully inform students in that long-lasting approach. The objections vary with the subjects. On one hand, the Core, some feel, arbitrarily privileges some fields; all of science comprises one year of study compared to the behemoth of humanities requirements, and while philosophy has its own Core division in Moral Reasoning, all of the social sciences are shunted into Social Analysis. 

Within the Core subdivisions, the actual courses seem, at times, to lose sight of larger aims. Literature and Arts A, whose aim is to introduce students to the analysis of literature, includes options such as "The Book of Job and the Joban Tradition," "The Modern Jewish Experience in Literature," and "The City and the Novel: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky." The topics begin to sound more like faculty indulgences than carefully selected avenues for exposing students to modes of inquiry. 

The undergraduate—and some fellow students—wonder why, for example, English 10, "Major British Writers," is not considered an adequate substitute for a Core course; it seems logical that what English concentrators take as their introduction to literature should suffice, and it would also introduce students who may take only one literature class at Harvard to more than just a few authors. 

"With just six courses to choose from every year, I'm not convinced that something like 'Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood' is a valid one," says Francesca Delbanco '95. "It's sort of embarrassing to have students leave Harvard with that as their one literature course. I understand that the content shouldn't matter, but in my experience of the Core, I haven't received approaches to knowledge but subject matter. The choice has to be made well." 

Moreover, the scope of Core courses is inconsistent from field to field. Some survey courses are already in place— Social Analysis 10, "Principles of Economics," for example, which is the most popular course at Harvard most years. "I wonder whether the very specific courses in the Core are equally capable of offering the understanding of certain subject areas," says Justin Label '97, who chairs the Select Committee. "Will 'The Altarpiece,' per se, offer the same understanding of the history of art that period or survey courses would?" 

Less substantive but perhaps more exasperating has been the dearth of Core offerings in some subdivisions. Last fall, Literature and Arts C listed only one course, Professor Gregory Nagy's "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization." For a senior who has not yet fulfilled that requirement, scheduling conflicts can turn the Core into a crisis. There were just three Historical Studies B courses offered that semester—on the Crusades and on the French and the Cuban revolutions. Says Barzun, "When you can't fit a Historical Studies A Core into your schedule, it's preventing you from getting an education." 

With initiatives on the table to expand the Core to include Ethnic Studies and Public Service, fulfilling the requirements could conceivably become more difficult. Adding 10 Core courses to the 16 required for one's concentration would leave just six electives—and just about none for students trying to fulfill pre-med requirements outside of a science concentration. Many undergraduates wonder what happened to the concept of choice in the liberal arts. 

There is one relief from the bottleneck; the Core Program allows departmental substitutions in two fields, Science A and B. An undergraduate may choose a "bypass" from a list of 21 introductory courses with the various science departments in place of a Core offering. Much of the discussion surrounding the Select Committee proceedings focused on granting History 10, "Western Societies, Politics, and Cultures," similar status among the Historical Studies offerings, if not moving it into the Core altogether. "I've never known how we're supposed to think about history without knowing any history," says Randy Fine '95, who serves on the Select Committee. 

In addition, students with high school Advanced Placement (AP) test scores of four or five in biology, chemistry, or physics may bypass one-half of the Core science requirement. "The bypassing was designed to allow students who were coming in with high-powered science and mathematics preparation to go into a track and go on to the next stage of their education," says Susan Lewis. "We find that the enrollments in Core science courses are quite small because we have increasingly large numbers of students who are very well prepared." 

But students are required to wait until their junior year to apply for an AP exemption and are not allowed to bypass both sciences, regardless of AP preparation. Although AP tests are available in all fields, outside the sciences the Core Program does not recognize that form of placement as an adequate substitute. 

"I think the Core is a valuable idea, and my education would not be as well-rounded without it," says Olivia Gentile '96. "The expectations within the courses, however, should be higher. Classes are huge and often crowded, and the material is easy. Sure, the course is not in my field, but I often feel we're treated like tenth graders. The Core doesn't assume we're intelligent enough to handle material beyond our own concentration." 

The core curriculum at Columbia University is often brought up by students at Harvard as a means of comparison. Comprising two full years of undergraduate education, Columbia's curriculum includes rigorous semester surveys of music, art history, and Western literature and philosophy, as well as extensive science and language preparation. Most core offerings are taught in sections of 25 students, led in most cases by the university's faculty. Compare that with huge lectures at Harvard, which are followed by sections led by teaching fellows. "While the core is frustrating at times, I feel that if one wants to critique Western society, one needs to know just what one is critiquing," says Margaret Aldrich, currently a sophomore at Columbia. 

Harvard's Core Program seems in part to have been a reaction against imposing a Western canon, but many undergraduates feel that their experience with it has been varied in effectiveness and generally diffuse. "My sister is currently enrolled in the Literature Humanities course at Columbia," says Charlotte Kaiser '96. "She's reading St. Augustine, the whole Western canon—things I'll never read at Harvard. While my taking 'The National Romances of Latin America' will be interesting, I'm not sure if I'll leave Harvard with that same feeling of completeness." 

As Harvard's Core Program heads for its scheduled five-year checkup next spring, the Select Committee's report will be on the table. Many students are asking that their education be more substantive; in a recent opinion piece in the Harvard Crimson, one student put the issue bluntly, even bitterly: "[I]f I can't learn the basics of history or art or literature at the paragon of higher education that is Harvard University, then I'm going to pack it in and head for my local community college." 

Will that message influence the faculty's deliberation? If so, a precedent will be set, for many undergraduates note how little voice the $100,000 spent on their Harvard/Radcliffe educations now provides them in letting the faculty know what and how they want to learn—and what they feel would make them even better and brighter going off into the world.

Jeremy Faro, the magazine's Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow, is an English and American literature and language concentrator affiliated with Eliot House. 

Read more articles by: Jeremy Faro

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