Choosing the Core

New plan for general education at Harvard would put many of the selections in students' hands.
November 4, 2005

A chemistry student at Harvard University might take an upper level Asian literature course, and even though the class is outside the student’s major, it would not count toward satisfying the Core Curriculum requirements, for which intentionally broad courses were designed.

That would change if recommendations issued Tuesday in the report from the Harvard College Curricular Review’s Committee on General Education are adopted. The report is a major step in what will be the biggest change to a Harvard undergraduate education since the core began in 1979.

The report is more of an outline than a blueprint, but, if the recommendations are approved, one thing is clear: for better or worse – and some say for the worse -- students would have much more say over the courses they take to fulfill the requirements.

Currently, students take courses that “by design, are different from those offered in departments,” according to the student handbook. The specially designed courses fall into seven main categories, such as foreign cultures, moral reasoning, and social analysis.

The report recommends grouping general education requirements -- aside from the required one-year or demonstrated “proficiency” in a foreign language, which would remain, but no longer be constrained to the first year -- into three broad categories in which the student must take three courses each: arts and humanities, the study of societies, and science and technology. The report suggests that students would primarily fill the nine slots with courses currently offered in various departments, a departure from the Core Curriculum model that used courses designed for its requirements and designed for non-majors.

The vast majority of Harvard faculty members asked said that they had not had a chance to review the document yet, but those who had looked it over said the report is a good place to start talking, even while many details remain to be worked out.

Stephen A. Mitchell, chair of the folklore and mythology program, welcomes the plan. He said it would "break your heart" to see students taking a core course that didn’t really interest them, simply because there is small selection of courses that fit most students’ schedules. Mitchell quoted a colleague who said students would “get their inoculation against foreign cultures.” Now, he said, with departmental courses on the table, “there are dozens of courses on foreign cultures they could take.”

Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said she read the recommendations “with great sadness,” because “this doesn’t really require anything,” she said. “It’s all in the hands of the student and the adviser. Sometimes the result will be wonderful, sometimes it will be depressing.”

Schneider said that one of the major problems of general education requirements are that they have no clear goals, and give students too much choice. She said that many institutions that are reforming general education requirements are requiring upper level courses within a major that integrate global perspectives, or ethical reasoning, so that students cannot skirt those topics. “The trend is toward vertical integration,” Schneider said, “rather than broadly defined intro courses. [The report] doesn’t offer anything new. They didn’t want to grapple with a well designed, coherent program.” She added that Harvard has the ability to be a leader in something like moral reasoning, but instead removed it as a clear objective.

The report does recommend keeping broad, interdisciplinary courses that, as with the core, would be specially designed. The report suggests that such courses would be “topically both wide-ranging and of considerable depth,” and says they could be collectively taught by faculty members from different departments. Unlike with the core, such courses would not be required.

Richard Thomas, chair of classics, said that one concern he has, at least until more details are worked out, is that a science student might satisfy one section of the requirements with three economics courses, which would “defeat the purpose,” he said. Still, he said, his general sense is that giving students greater flexibility is a positive step. He noted that students would be able to fill the requirements with smaller seminars, rather than the large lectures that comprised the core. “It’s a trade-off,” he said. “But a student should be able to count work outside of the major that is not just at the entry level.”

Irene Choi, a psychology student and member of the Undergraduate Council, is thrilled to have more choices. She said that most students “dread” core classes, and that the “about 1,000 students,” she said, that take “Justice,” in the moral reasoning category, just take it for lack of anything more enticing. “Some core fields are so underdeveloped that everybody takes one class,” she said.

Choi added that a science student wants to take three economics courses to fill a social sciences requirement, they should be able to. “Students pay for their education and they expect to be able to take courses they’re interested in,” she said. “If a student wants to take all econ. Why not let them? They’re still learning things.”

Matthew Glazer, the Undergraduate Council president, said that the new freedom would be good because the offerings in the core just frustrated students. He noted that even without rigid requirements, there is a way for the faculty to influence student choices. "Improved advising is going to be a huge part of this," he said.


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