Meet the New Core, Same as the Old Core

I try to avoid so much as thinking about Harvard these days, having spent more of my post-college life immersed in the topic than is strictly healthy. But humor me for a moment, since my alma mater has decided to replace its Seventies-era baggy-monster of a Core Curriculum - long an embarrassment to the term "Core" - with a new program in "General Education" that promises to be, well, more or less identical to the old Core.

The old system required students to take a semester-long course in each of the following topic areas: Foreign Cultures; Historical Study; Literature and Arts; Moral Reasoning; Quantitative Reasoning; Science; and Social Analysis. The new system, by contrast, will require students to take courses in each of the following topic areas: Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding; Culture and Belief; Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning; Ethical Reasoning; Science of Living Systems; Science of the Physical Universe; Societies of the World; and the United States in the World. Pretty revolutionary, huh? After all, this is Harvard: Why have Quantitative Reasoning when you can throw in an extra fifty-cent word and come up with Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning?

The new system, according to its proponents, will be better attuned to the "real-world" applications of the liberal arts, though insufficient interaction with the "real world" never seemed to be a problem at the Harvard I remember. What was a problem was the intersection between the university's horror of anything resembling a canon and its desire to pretend to have a Core Curriculum, which meant that students were required to spend a quarter of their academic time choosing amongst the random hodgepodge of "Core" courses, which were burdensome and restrictive without making any attempt at all to add up to something approaching a comprehensive liberal arts education. "Approaches to knowledge" was the buzzword: You learned the scientific approach to knowledge, the literary approach to knowledge, and so on and so forth, and it didn't matter whether you learned it while reading Dante's Divine Comedy or taking "Women Writers in Imperial China: How to Escape from the Feminine Voice." The approach was all; the knowledge itself didn't matter.

Perhaps the new General Education curriculum will do better: It isn't clear, as yet, which courses will go under each of the "new" umbrellas, and perhaps the end result will purge the trivia and esoterica, and leave roster of worthwhile options for students to select from. But more likely, the new curriculum will serve the same function as the old: It will serve to limit students' freedom, as any educational system must, but it will do so in the service of no vision grander than the the belief that Harvard is Harvard, and needs to have something it can call a Core.