HMC Should Re-evaluate Core Curriculum

The Harvey Mudd College Core Curriculum is analogous to a roller coaster ride. It is the notorious, three-semester curriculum that every Mudder must go through, in addition to a major and the Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts (HSA) requirements.

The official description explains that the Core Curriculum includes “three semesters of mathematics, two and one-half semesters of physics and an associated laboratory, one and one-half semesters of chemistry and an associated laboratory, an interdisciplinary … ‘choice lab’ … a half-semester of college writing, a course in critical inquiry offered by the Department of HSA, and one course each in biology, computer science and engineering.” Students start taking Core classes in their first semester, and are usually able to take one elective class of their choice in each of the first and second semesters.

After the long wait for their admission decision, admitted students are thrust into the Core, with little choice in their classes. Put another way, after waiting in a long line for the ride, students are suddenly thrust onto the roller coaster with a seat belt and little information on what bumps and 360-degree turns to expect.

The first semester ride is comparatively smooth, just like the initial uphill ride of a roller coaster. However, the smooth ride is deceptive, as it is only in preparation for the sharp fall. The first semester courses at HMC are graded on a pass/fail system, so even though the classes are hard, students don’t have to stress too much about the workload. The seat belts are on, and the first sharp drop comes in the second semester’s midterm season when math, physics and chemistry exams in addition to paper write-ups for the HSA classes all catch up with the students at approximately the same time. The first fall is followed by several more in the second and third semesters. The third semester is perhaps the hardest, like the 360-degree turns of the roller coaster. The course load includes electromagnetism for physics, a systems engineering course and intermediate math courses.

After being roughed up for three semesters, by which time the majority of students are finished with core classes, the students emerge alive from their rides to tell their tales as survivors.

Granted, the Core only includes the fundamental classes of each of the sciences, and it is important that students are well-versed in these fundamental classes if they want to call themselves scientists. However, do the majority of students need a foundation in all the sciences for their future careers? For example, as a computer science (CS) major, I have little need for biology and chemistry, unless I am writing code for a medical research center.

My biggest complaint against the Core is that it takes a lot away from students’ freedom in designing their own curriculum, a freedom that is supposed to define a traditional liberal arts college experience. As a CS major who is also interested in physics, I have very little time to take more physics classes besides those offered in the Core. After being done with the Core, I have to use the remaining time to finish my major requirements and take important CS electives to increase the depth of my major.

However, after talking to several first-years and sophomores, I got a different perspective about the Core. Many feel that having a set schedule for the first three semesters allowed them to systematically sample classes from all majors at Mudd and make the best choice for their major.

Since the Core has defined the first one and a half years of students’ college life, it acquires a nostalgic feeling. I have rarely heard any student speak critically of the Core, unless it is past midnight and the students are working on Core homework due the next day. The friendships and camaraderie formed working on Core assignments together with one’s classmates define an essential part of being a Mudder. Mudders have grown to love and hate the Core curriculum at the same time.

My request is that we look past the nostalgia and critically evaluate our classes. Is the Core a feasible practice in the modern world, where being an expert in one’s field could count for more than being an all-rounder in a variety of fields? This is something we should consider—as soon as we finish our homework. 

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