Harvard’s Hollow Core

“The philosophy behind the core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so.”

Caleb Nelson ’88 (Mathematics) writing in The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990:

Even before Harvard’s Core Curriculum made its debut, in 1979, Saturday Review hailed it as “a quiet revolution.” The magazine was wrong on both counts: not only was the core unrevolutionary but it rapidly became one of the loudest curricula in America. Time, Newsweek, and other popular periodicals celebrated the new program, which required undergraduates to take special courses designed to reveal the methods–not the content–of the various academic disciplines. “Not since…1945,” The Washington Post said, “had the academic world dared to devise a new formula for developing ‘the educated man.'” The reform was front-page news for The New York Times, and even network television covered it. Media enthusiasm continues today, with Edward Fiske, the former education editor of The New York Times advising readers of The Fiske Guide to Colleges: “Back in the mid-1970s Harvard helped launch the current curriculum reform movement, and the core curriculum that emerged ranks as perhaps the most exciting collection of academic offerings in all of American higher education.”
The core did indeed start a movement. A 1981 report issued by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching spoke of “the Harvard lead” and recommended a general-education program that put more emphasis on “the shared relationships common to all people” than on any particular facts. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill soon adopted the Harvard approach, and other schools have instituted programs that stress skills over facts. The structures of these programs vary, but the Harvard core’s singular influence is suggested by Ernest Boyer’s 1987 book College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. Boyer’s survey of academic deans at colleges and universities nationwide found that the Harvard core was the most frequently mentioned example of a successful program of general education.
For their part, Harvard officials seem delighted with the program. A. Michael Spence, who just finished a six-year term as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, has labeled it “a smash hit”; President Derek Bok has heralded its “enormous success.” Indeed, Bok, who will step down next year after two decades at the helm, said in 1983, when the faculty approved the continuation of the core, that the development of the program had given him more satisfaction than any other project undertaken during his presidency. In 1985 the members of Harvard’s chief governing board showed that they had no complaints either when the elected the core’s architect, Henry Rosovsky, to their number. (Rosovsky, who preceded Spence as dean of the faculty, has now been appointed acting dean while Harvard searches for Spence’s permanent replacement.) The program recently marked its tenth anniversary, and no fundamental changes are on the horizon.
Forty-five years ago Harvard had a clear idea of its mission. In 1945 it published a 267-page book laying out goals for educators, with the hope of giving American colleges and secondary schools a “unifying purpose and idea.” The thrust of this volume, titled General Education in a Free Society but nicknamed “the Redbook,” was that educational institutions should strive to create responsible democratic citizens, well versed in the heritage of the West and endowed with “the common knowledge and the common values on which a free society depends.” As James Bryant Conant, then the president of Harvard, once summed up his goal, “Our purpose is to cultivate in the largest possible number of our future citizens an appreciation of both the responsibilities and the benefits which come to them because they are Americans and are free.”
To accomplish this goal at Harvard, the Redbook recommended that every undergraduate be required to take two full-year survey courses, tentatively called “Great Texts of Literature” and “Western Thought and Institutions,” and a full-year course on the principles of either the physical or the biological sciences. The Harvard faculty balked at this specific program, but it endorsed the Redbook’s essence. In each of three areas–the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences–it established a short list of approved courses. The general education program was first required in the fall of 1949 and was fully phased in two years later, when all entering students were required to do two semesters of approved coursework in each area.

At the outset the courses strongly reflected Harvard’s commitment to instructing students in democratic culture. In 1949-1950 students could choose among “Humanism in the West,” “Epic and Novel,” “Individual and Social Values,” and “Doubt, Inquiry, and Affirmation in Western Literature” to fulfill their basic humanities requirement. The options in the social sciences were “Western Thought and Institutions,” “The Growth of Modern Western Society,” and “Introduction to the Development of Western Civilization.” In the natural sciences students could take “Principles of Physical Science,” “Principles of Biological Science,” or “The Growth of the Experimental Sciences.”
But philosophical and educational fashion moved away from the vision of President Conant and the Redbook, and Harvard let its curriculum follow the new trends. Where once the university had spoken strongly of the need to ground students in the Western tradition, in the mid-1960s the general-education program began to lose its unifying theme. Ever more courses were allowed to meet the basic requirements, until by 1969 the program included more than a hundred offerings. The character of most of these courses, moreover, was far different from that of the original group. The humanities featured titles like “The Scandinavian Cinema,” “Creative Arts and Computing Machines,” and “Narration in the Film: Theory and Practice.” The social-sciences area came to include such classes as “Interplanetary and Intercontinental Cultural Diffusion and Contact,” “Drug Use and Adolescent Development,” and “The American Indian in the Contemporary United States.” The natural-sciences area no longer included “Principles of Biological Science,” but it did contain such “relevant” courses as “Biology and Social Issues,” “Environmental Effects of Power Generation,” and “Introduction to Environmental Health.”
The general-education program, which had once tried to provide a Harvard education with an overarching purpose, now tried merely to broaden students by exposing them to courses that did not fit into traditional departments. Faithful to the new theories, Harvard declined to broaden its students in any particular direction; how they chose to fill their minds was their own business, and nobody could say that a course called “The Preindustrial City: Its Physical Form and Structural Characteristics” was any less worthwhile than a course on great literature. Harvard’s general-education requirements had become value-free.
The general atmosphere at Harvard was reflected in the rise of independent study. As the associate dean for academic planning Phyllis Keller writes in her 1982 book Getting at the Core: Curricular Reform at Harvard, “By 1967, through student initiative, access to Independent Study had become so flexible that any faculty member could arrange for any student to do virtually anything under the sun for academic credit.” Richard Norton Smith, the author of The Harvard Century: The Making of a University to a Nation (1986), reports that some students received academic credit for “evaluating the nutritional content of their own diets” and that others were similarly rewarded for scuba diving. The dilution of standards was highlighted in 1979, when Sports Illustrated reported that twenty students were studying the Harvard football team’s offense under the tutelage of the quarterback.
But educational fashion changed again, the state of Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum began to provoke widespread dissatisfaction, and the administration sought a suitable reform. In 1974 Henry Rosovsky, then the dean of the faculty, called for a review of the curriculum as a prelude to change.
Yet although Harvard officials wanted to reform the curriculum, they did not want to launch divisive arguments within the faculty about which subjects were most important. The Harvard administration had learned long before that to commit itself to a particular educational vision was to draw fire. In 1963, for instance, a group of Harvard professors tried to modify the general-education program, only to be met by what Phyllis Keller calls “the avalanche of faculty criticism that buried every specific proposal to change the structure of requirements.” The faculty found itself unable to agree on any specific content for the general-education program, and simply threw up its hands; it encouraged the introduction of all kinds of different general-education courses by directing the program to become “quite sensitive to innovation and change.”
With this experience to reflect upon, in the seventies Harvard devised a novel scheme to avoid discord while still reforming its curriculum. If “every specific proposal” for reform raised a fire storm, the college would simply avoid specifics. Rather than emphasize knowledge, the new core curriculum would stress students’ critical faculties. The report of the task force that proposed the new requirements explained:
“Everything depends on what questions the faculty tries to answer. If it is asked what bodies of knowledge are more or less important, it almost surely will come to no conclusion. There are simply too many facts, too many theories, too many subjects, too many specializations to permit arranging all knowledge into an acceptable hierarchy. But if the faculty is asked instead what intellectual skills, what distinctive ways of thinking, are identifiable and important, it is not clear that either the ‘knowledge explosion’ or the size of the faculty has made that question unanswerable.”
The intellectual style that elevates subjective process over objective fact meshed perfectly with the administration’s reluctance to launch an intrinsically controversial discussion of what subjects should be at the core of a Harvard education. As Anthony Oettinger, a professor of applied mathematics, said about the resulting proposal, “This motion…cannot fail to pass; it has become totally content-free.”
f the administration promoted the new core curriculum from a desire to preserve consensus, the faculty had its own reasons for going along. While the curriculum was still being debated, Yale University offered Dean Rosovsky its presidency; Rosovsky declined the invitation on the grounds that he wanted to see the core through. This decision, according to Smith’s Harvard Century, had far reaching consequences.
Sociologist George Goethals, who calls the final curriculum “a farce,” speaks for many of his colleagues: “It got through the faculty…because everybody loves Henry.” This view was seconded by another professor, who credited the dean’s refusal to leave Cambridge as a turning point in the faculty’s consideration of the reform. “We felt we owed him something,” he explained.
Yet it is doubtful that the faculty needed this extra spur to make it accept the core curriculum. As long as debate remained on the level of educational theory rather than course content, most professors seemed bored but acquiescent. After all, as Professor David Riesman said at the time, “a minority of the faculty is interested in educational issues”; thus Professor James Ackerman sensed that the core’s passage might be due “more to indifference than enthusiasm.” Whatever the motivation, in 1978 the faculty approved the new program in a three-to-one landslide.
The core, which still exists today, is a set of courses divided into ten categories–Social Analysis, Moral Reasoning, Historical Study A & B, Foreign Cultures, and Literature and Arts A, B, & C. Students are required to take at least one course from each of eight of these ten areas; they are exempt from the two areas that most closely resemble their major.
The areas themselves are odd assemblages of specialized classes watered down for the nonspecialist. The following list, drawn from the 1989-1990 course catalogue, gives a sampling of the core:
Foreign Cultures–“Building the Shogun’s Realm: The Unification of Japan (1560-1650)”
Historical Study A–“The ‘Eastern Question’ to the ‘Middle East Problem’ (1774-1984)”
Historical Study B–“Power and Society in Medieval Europe: The Crisis of the 12th Century”
Literature and Arts A–“Oral Literature: An Introduction to Folklore and Mythology”
Literature and Arts B–“The Art of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent: Art,
Architecture, and Ceremonial at the Ottoman Court”
Literature and Arts C–“The Imagery of the Modern Metropolis: Pictorial and Literary Representations of New York and Berlin from 1880 to 1940”
Moral Reasoning–“Confucian Humanism and Moral Community”
Science A–“States of Matter: Order, Disorder, and Broken Symmetries”
Science B–“Plants and Biological Principles in Human Affairs”
Social Analysis–“Culture, Illness, and Healing: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Medicine in Society”

The core’s esoteric course titles strongly resemble those prevalent during the waning days of the general-education program. Indeed, soon after the core made its debut, one junior faculty member called it “old garbage in new pails.”
The Harvard administration, though, rejects the notion that the core is merely a strange bunch of distribution requirements. In the words of the course catalogue,
“The Core differs from other programs of general education. 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. Rather, the Core seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education. It aims to show what kinds of knowledge and what forms of inquiry exist in these areas, how different means of analysis are acquired, how they are used, and what their value is.”
The philosophy behind the core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so. Facts may change or become irrelevant, but analytic faculties will always be useful. “We live in a revolutionary era,” Dean Rosovsky once explained to the undergraduate daily, The Harvard Crimson, “where theories and facts can be crammed in, but ten years later, you’ll forget them.” As Rosovsky later observed, “you have to prepare the mind to deal with change without emphasis on certain facts.
One suspects, however, that Harvard’s philosophical commitment to emphasizing analysis over content is weak, because the core is not above stressing content when it seems politically expedient to do so. While all students can meet their core requirements without taking a single course that focuses on Western culture, most are required to study a non-Western culture. Indeed, the rhetoric surrounding the core’s Foreign Cultures requirement differs fundamentally from that surrounding all the other core areas; it alone emphasizes matter over method. In the words of the course catalogue, “The Core requirement in Foreign Cultures is designed to expand the range of cultural experience and to provide fresh perspectives on one’s own cultural assumptions and traditions.”
Foreign Cultures courses do not pretend to teach students to think like cultural anthropologists, well versed in the analytic tools that would let them critically assess other cultures. There is reason to believe, in fact, that the courses actively exclude critical approaches. In the October, 1987, issue of The Harvard Salient, a campus political monthly that I was then editing, a student named Arthur Long wrote about his experience in Foreign Cultures 12, “Sources of Indian Civilization”:
“The class strongly discouraged us from critically assessing Indian society, because–in the words of other students–doing so invariably involves looking at matters with ‘our own Western preconceptions.’ Hence when discussing the caste system, we overlooked how untouchability has institutionalized slavery; instead we asserted that, at least before British imperialists began to impose Western values on India, caste made for a more compassionate universe than we know in America.”
The oddities of the Foreign Cultures requirement are highlighted by the absence of any corresponding Western-culture requirement. Although a Western-culture requirement was initially proposed by the task force that developed the core curriculum, it was later scrapped in the face of faculty opposition. Indeed, in the ten years after 1978–when the professor who had taught the basic Redbook course “Western Thought and Institutions” retired–no survey of Western civilization was even offered.
For a school averse to controversial educational stands, this peculiar state of affairs was predictable. Since the sixties, Western-civilization requirements have been loudly denounced as narrow-minded at best and racist at worst. Such requirements, the argument goes, slight non-Western peoples and mythologizes a West that has in fact committed its share of barbarisms. Many universities have accordingly de-emphasized the West. Only relatively recently has the spotlight shifted to the critics–as politically diverse as William Bennett and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.–who observe that whatever its faults the West is the font of freedom, and that since we must ground ourselves in one culture before we can fully appreciate others, it is both natural and necessary for Western schools to teach Western heritage.
Phyllis Keller, whose book on the core’s creation staunchly defends the program’s underlying philosophy, neglects ethnocentrism when she catalogues the arguments that were used to justify the omission of the Western-culture requirement. But the arguments that she does list are all unpersuasive.
First, Keller reports, “One problem with the survey of Western civilization was that it was often boring for both faculty and students.” As a result, “it seemed highly improbable that faculty members would undertake responsibility for such a course with any degree of continuing enthusiasm.” This claim says little for Harvard’s much-vaunted faculty. If every Harvard professor would be bored by introducing students to the staples of Western literature and philosophy, then Harvard has no business dealing with undergraduates; it should confine itself to specialized graduate study. Fortunately, at least some professors do seem to be interested in teaching a Western-culture survey course. “Western Societies, Politics and Cultures” was introduced last year as a non-core elective in the history department, under the supervision of one or two professors each semester and with guest lectures by a number of other faculty members.
A related argument on Keller’s list is that a Western-culture requirement was largely unnecessary: “Many students have studied ‘the facts’ of history in high school; while such exposure was by no means universal, it was surely widespread.” Many students have also read novels in high school, yet literature remains a division of the core. Presumably college courses can treat more topics in more-sophisticated ways than can high school courses. Few ninth-graders, after all, can fully grasp Kant. If Harvard believes that it cannot cover subjects any better than a typical high school, it should shut down.
Keller’s list continues:
“The utility of a Western civilization requirement would also depend entirely on strict sequencing: this course would have to be taken before all the other courses for which it was supposed to provide background. That was likely to interfere with course sequences needed for certain concentrations and with other basic college requirements.”
Since all freshman are required to take an expository writing class, it is hard to believe that they could not also be required to take a Western-culture class. Columbia University, for example, manages to impose such a requirement very successfully. But, in any event, familiarity with the great works and great events of Western culture is not simply “background” for one’s classes in pictorial representations of Berlin. It is important in its own right.
In Keller’s opinion, “the most compelling argument” advanced against a Western-culture component of the core was that such a requirement would be inconsistent with the philosophy behind the core, with its stress on analytic methods. Under the core’s rationale, “the facts of history–without derogating their importance–appear to be infinitely forgettable.” But there is no reason to assume that students can develop their critical faculties only when they are studying esoteric books and events and not well-known ones. Keller’s argument, moreover, is vitiated by the fact that Foreign Cultures courses have no pretensions to teaching analytic methods.
It is difficult to imagine that the arguments that Keller lists could, by themselves, have persuaded the faculty to reject a Western-culture requirement. One must suspect that the faculty was also worried that such a requirement would be, or would seem, ethnocentric–a concern that had surfaced repeatedly during the faculty’s debates on the core. This suspicion is supported by the fact that when the tides shifted and vocal advocates of teaching Western culture gained prominence in the mid-1980s, the history department created its new “Western Societies, Politics, and Cultures”–the result, a professor told the Crimson, of the increased demand for such a survey course. Even so, Harvard still seems wary of charges of ethnocentrism. According to the Crimson, “History professors said…that the department intentionally refrained from naming the new class ‘Western Civilization,’ fearing such a title would offend some people.”
If the core arose more from the administration’s desire to avoid conflict than from any commitment to the ostensible philosophy behind the program, one should not be surprised that the core has failed to live up to the administration’s claims. In 1987 the Salient conducted a random telephone survey of 200 undergraduates. More than 80 percent of the students said that most core courses do not “introduce students to approaches to knowledge” but simply “teach students about a particular subject.” More than three quarters of the respondents rejected the course catalogue’s claim that “courses within each area or subdivision of the [core] are equivalent in the sense that, while their subject matter may vary, their emphasis on a particular way of thinking is the same.” The same number of respondents, furthermore, said that departmental courses are at least as good as core courses at introducing students to “approaches to knowledge,” and 40 percent believed that departmental courses are better at this task.
Oddly, the college implicitly grants that departmental courses teach students just as much about analytical methods as core courses, and hence that there is no true justification for the core scheme. Since students are not required to take courses in the two core areas that most closely resemble their majors, Harvard must admit either that it lets students graduate without teaching them how to approach their chosen fields or that departmental courses are just as successful as core courses in helping students develop intellectual skills.
The administrations claims about the special nature of core courses can be assessed accurately on the basis of a single episode. In 1988, when a course on the history of jazz moved from the music department to the core, Harvard refused to grant core credit to the students who had taken the course before its move, on the grounds that it had been changed to become suitable for the core. But the administration also refused to let them take the course again, on the grounds that the new core course was not substantially different from its departmental predecessor. When the students angrily objected, Harvard quelled the incipient controversy by changing its mind and granting them core credit.
Professors have seemed equally confused ever since the core system was adopted. In 1980 the Crimson reported that “most professors, section leaders and students interviewed this week were unable to say what made their [Literature and Arts] Core courses different from any other courses.”
The problem goes beyond the particular courses that are now in the core: no set of introductory courses could achieve the core’s ostensible goals. One cannot think like a physicist, for example, without actually knowing a great deal of physics. To be sure, one can understand the basic steps in the scientific process–forming hypotheses, testing them, revising them–without knowing any scientific facts. But precisely for that reason, such an understanding is so superficial that it is well within the reach of most schoolchildren. To have a deeper awareness of how scientists approach problems, one must be familiar with the complex interplay of the scientific principles that underlie both the problems and their solutions. In short, on must have studied much science before one can have a useful idea of how scientists operate.
Even in the humanities the core’s failure to meet its stated goals was inevitable. The core’s history courses, for instance, can have little to do with historical methods. Not only must one leave analyses of historical technique to specialists but–since entering students are presumed to be ignorant of scholarly methods–the course cannot very well demand any original research. Of necessity, core history courses focus exclusively on their respective subjects.
Phyllis Keller anticipates this argument in her book , and asserts that the subjects themselves are carefully chosen to impart certain lessons about the utility and complexity of history as a discipline. Historical Study A subjects are selected to show students “how historical study helps to make sense of the great issues of our time”; according to the core planners Keller quotes, while classes in the B group reveal “the confusion of circumstance, purpose, and accident that inevitably shapes people’s lives,” and thereby teach students that “there are very few heroes and very few villains, and that only false history makes easy judgments possible.” These lessons are not necessarily consistent; while the A group points to the patterns in history, the B group seems to deny their existence. But in any event, even students who successfully grasp the lessons acquire no new intellectual techniques. Like students in every other discipline, they can develop the relevant analytic faculties only slowly, through a coherent and comprehensive study of the subject’s substance.
If the core’s goals were realistic, they would still have little to recommend them. Why, for instance, are lessons about the nature of history as a discipline the most important things for students to learn in their required history course? Students certainly should recognize that history is the testing ground of public policy, and that its study can reveal much about the psychology of people and nations; as Santayana’s famous aphorism goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But this lesson about history is useless unless one also learns the actual lessons of history–an accomplishment that requires careful attention to historical facts themselves. When Harvard suggests that its mission is finished once students learn that historical study can be useful, the college abdicates its educational responsibility at a crucial point: it lets students decide for themselves whether to study the actual substance of history, beyond the incidental amount that they find in their core courses. Regardless of their decision, Harvard willingly certifies their educational attainments by awarding them diplomas.
Indeed, the entire core is designed to let Harvard gracefully excuse itself from the controversial duty of making such decisions for students. In Literature and Arts A, for instance, Harvard does not care whether students take a class about Shakespeare or one titled “Beast Literature.” The area includes such special-interest courses as “African American Women Writers,” “Chivalric Romances of the Middle Ages,” and “Epic Fiction International”–for Harvard is unwilling to assert that the novels of Salmon Rushdie are any less important than Shakespeare’s plays or the Bible. In the words of the leader of the initial core task force, the idea “was not to make choices for students, but rather to equip them with the ability to make the choices for themselves.”
Before the core can ever equip students to make choices, however, students must make an uninformed choice about which core class to take. Those who choose Rushdie learn nothing of Shakespeare; if they opt to take a subsequent course on Shakespeare’s works, it is only because they have made another uninformed decision. The core is therefore ill designed even to guide students in structuring their own educations.
The core not only explicitly denies the value of giving students any particular core of knowledge but also skews the range of knowledge that students might be able to pick up. It contains no course on mathematics, a discipline better suited than most to teaching methods of analysis. The core offers no introductory foreign-language course. Its coverage of sciences–especially the more quantitative physical sciences–is widely considered laughable; as Frank Westheimer, a professor of chemistry, asserted when the core was proposed, the program represents science as having “a minor, perhaps only a trivial, place in the intellectual heritage of mankind.” The core lacks a general survey of the history of even one Western nation, although it does contain survey courses on China, India, and Japan. It offers students no broad look at literature or art, at music or philosophy.
Ezekiel Emanuel, who five years ago served as the head section leader for the largest core Moral Reasoning course while he attended Harvard Medical School, wrote in a 1983 editorial in the Crimson, “Most Harvard students taking Core courses are no more likely to have read and seriously understood the philosophical, political, or cultural foundations of their own United States than if they selected 32 random courses [the number of courses required for an undergraduate degree] from the catalogue.”
In 1978 Henry Rosovsky justified the core to People magazine in this way: “What’s at stake is the restoration of common discourse in which all students can share.” But that is exactly what Harvard has lost. Common discourse would require students to be familiar with some of the same authors, to know some of the same history, and to have learned some of the same philosophies–in short, to have gone through a program such as the one outlined by the Redbook. It would therefore require Harvard to take the controversial step of defining a canon. The administration is unwilling to do so.
As a result, students can graduate from Harvard without ever having studied the books that are commonly considered great or the events that are commonly considered most important. In the 1989-1990 catalogue, for instance, no core Literature and Arts course lists any of the great nineteenth-century British novelists among the authors studied, nor does any list such writers as Virgil, Milton, and Dostoevsky. In the core’s history areas even students who did the impossible and took every single course would not focus on any Western history before the Middle Ages, nor would they study the history of the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the American Civil War, or a host of other topics that one might expect a core to cover. To be sure, students can learn about these things on their own or in the individual departments, and they can leave Harvard with a very good education. But the whole point of having a core curriculum is to make the process less chancy.
Harvard’s stature and the media’s lavish praise have made the core one of the most influential curricula in American, but it is hollow. It owes its existence to Harvard’s willingness to sacrifice content in order to preserve consensus. A decade of experience has exposed the poverty of this approach.