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The Core Curriculum: Harvard vs. Columbia

Jan 25, 2022

Harvard has recently faced criticism from its undergraduates for its core curriculum. An Ivy League school, Harvard is known for its liberal arts education. In order to fulfill their General Education requirements, students are required to take courses across four categories: Aesthetics & Culture; Ethics & Civics; Histories, Societies, Individuals and Science & Technology in Society. Students also have to fulfill additional requirements in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and foreign language.

Despite its distributed requirements, Spencer W. Glassman, Harvard class of ‘24, argues that Harvard’s liberal arts curriculum should be more rigorous. Humanities courses should be just as, if not more challenging than STEM classes. Given that students can currently survive discussion sections without having to read course material, they should be asked to comprehend complex readings in greater depth.

Tarun Timalsina ‘22, similarly calls for a more engaging core. According to Timalsina, some Harvard classes are labeled as “gems,” or easy-going classes requiring little effort to earn a top grade. “A typical Gen Ed course meets twice a week in a large lecture hall where between a couple dozen and a few hundred students passively listen to their professor’s monologue. In these Gen Ed classes, one can get away with never speaking up in class, ever talking to the professor, and most crucially, without ever meaningfully engaging with the topic,” he writes. Timalsina states that such a passive approach is contradictory to a liberal arts education intended to develop critical thinking skills and encourage thinkers to challenge underlying assumptions or societal beliefs. The courses should reflect the rigor required to become a great philosopher or a student of the humanities. “Each student should be expected to produce original, thought-provoking work at the end of these courses reflecting on their sense of purpose in the world,” he writes. “If Harvard wants to produce alumni who will make significant contributions to thought,” Glassman similarly states, “it ought to start asking more of its students.” Timalsina looks to Columbia, renowned for its core, as an example of a more rigorous liberal arts curriculum.

Cassius Rathbone, Columbia class of ‘21, begs to differ, writing that Columbia’s demanding core courses are too lengthy. Pointing out that the range and depth of the core curriculum is a balancing act in itself, Rathbone argues that the length of certain classes should be shortened, as students do not have enough time to meet all academic requirements, explore new academic routes, study, find a job, join a club, and maintain a social life.

Similar to Harvard, Columbia has a broad list of core requirements, including Literature Humanities, University Writing, Contemporary Civilization, Art and Music Humanities, two Global core courses, three science classes, a foreign language, and a physical education requirement, all in addition to major and minor requirements. One hour and 50 minutes of Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization eventually become excessive, inhibiting effective concentration and absorption of class material, contends Rathbone. By requiring students to sit through almost two hours in classes they are disinterested in, the Core’s aim to cultivate “critical and creative intellectual capacity” is ultimately defeated. He proposes that all core classes should be no longer than an hour and 15 minutes, allowing students to become more engaged with the discussion and flexibility to schedule desired courses.

Yes, the pedagogical grass is always greener. High school juniors, when conducting your college search, it’s not sufficient to determine whether a school does or does not require its students to complete a core. As core courses differ in their individual requirements and levels of difficulty, make sure to research how each schools’ core curricula differ from each other. Determine your preferences in course flexibility and rigor, and learn how your dream schools’ academic demands can best support your educational goals.

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