"At the moment, to be an educated man or woman doesn't mean anything." These are startling words as more than 11 million young American college students begin the fall term, coming as they do from the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at a prestigious institution like Harvard. In an age of early specialization (31 percent of Harvard freshmen are either premed or prelaw) and proliferating courses (Harvard offers some 2,600), Dean Henry Rosovsky for the past four years has spearheaded a move to replace the university's 33-year-old general education program with a core curriculum, a series of courses which every student must take before graduation. Rosovsky's purpose is to create a "shared experience" and "common denominator" in Harvard education. So intent has the dean been on reform that he has taken himself out of the running for two university presidencies, Chicago and Yale. Last spring, after long debate, the Harvard faculty voted 182 to 65 in favor of his plan, beginning with the class of '83 which enters Harvard this month. Rosovsky, who was born of Russian-Jewish parents in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), is an expert on Japanese economic history and has taught at Berkeley, Stanford, Tokyo and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He and his Israeli wife, Nitza, have three children: Leah, 21, a Harvard graduate; Judith, 19, at the University of Massachusetts; and Michael, 13, in public school. Recently Dean Rosovsky talked with Gail Jennes of PEOPLE about the core curriculum and its importance for higher education.

Why did Harvard decide to review undergraduate education?

The times change, so have the country and the world. About every 20 or 30 years it is important to try to match the curriculum to the changing times.

What gave you misgivings about the present curriculum?

When our students graduate at commencement, we welcome them "to the company of educated men and women." Hearing it year after year started to bother me. I felt many of our students weren't getting a true, well-balanced education. Instead they were being quickly thrown into career and hobby education. There seemed to be an important missing ingredient without which people aren't truly educated.

Where would you fault Harvard's general education program?

Essentially, that it has no guidelines. It has proliferated into a cornucopia of courses, a Chinese menu. A student finds it bewildering to try to build a base for his or her education from a catalogue of some 2,600 titles with little guidance and few standards.

What other factors made that kind of education obsolete?

There has been a revolution in America since the Second World War. We have opened up our best schools on a merit basis, with students from all walks of life, regions and ethnic origins. There are no natural standards of secondary education. The American system does not slam the door on a young person, regardless of class lines. But we face the serious problem of transmitting shared values to students of such varied backgrounds. What's at stake is the restoration of common discourse in which all students can share.

Harvard has some famed easy or "gut" courses, like Natural Science 10, known as "Rocks for Jocks," or the films of John Ford. What about them?

There are many courses with little claim to generality, such as "The Politics of Burma." Though perfectly good courses, it's hard to claim they teach students some of the basic principles, critical appreciation of humanistic tradition or social-scientific reasoning. I think my field, Japanese economic history, is important. It's my mountain and I'm happy to climb it. But it's not a core subject.

How much of the undergraduates' time will the core curriculum require?

It involves the equivalent of one year, or seven to eight courses, in five academic areas, regardless of a student's field of concentration. The areas are literature and art; mathematics and science; history; social and philosophical analysis, and foreign languages and cultures. The core won't turn out scientists or humanists; they will still have to specialize. But it will attempt to make sure all our students have covered five academic areas in terms of informed acquaintance and critical appreciation.

Why is a "common learning experience" important?

A century ago educated people could communicate more easily out of a shared intellectual experience. With a much more complicated world, it's harder for educated people to share anything. But it's terribly important for students of different interests to have sympathy for one another and for the way other people's minds work.

How will a common core curriculum accomplish this?

Nonscientists will study science, not only to learn some of the important principles, but also to understand what it means to be a scientist, what issues scientists are passionate about. So also for the scientists, who will learn about art, literature and history. The willingness to talk to other people and see their point of view is what creates an intellectual community.

Why do some scientists say the core slights science?

We've had a difference of opinion with some important scientists. They are in a peculiar, paradoxical situation. They want the science requirement to be more than a full year, though many feel that even this is inadequate. At the same time they feel it is difficult or impossible to teach science to nonscientists. In my view, a year of really solid, rigorous science is great.

What did you think of the Harvard Crimson cartoon whose caption said that only after you study a subject in which you have absolutely no interest can you claim to be educated?

It's a cheap shot. I don't agree. The core isn't "back to basics," as people have said. It is not a step backward. It updates and looks forward. The impression that we're trying to put students into a four-year straitjacket is absurd. If we tell people today we think they should do something, it's seen as limiting freedom, bitter medicine.

Some say that arriving at a fixed notion of what makes an educated person is simply not acceptable today. What's your opinion?

It's a counsel of despair. We cannot continue to live in a tower of Babel. It's our task to gain that consensus. I have a horror of the relativism that has crept into so much of life, which says that anything is as good as everything else.

For example?

In a discussion of whether comic books are a better or worse form of literature than Shakespeare, maybe "better" is the wrong word. De gustibus: People have different tastes. But surely you can say something about the lasting value or critical importance of certain forms of learning.

What, then, is an educated person?

An educated person should be able to control our language, to read and write English effectively, to express ideas, to communicate. The person should have a critical appreciation and an informed acquaintance with the three major ways in which we understand ourselves, our society and our universe: in the sciences, through mathematics and experiment; in the social sciences, through quantitative and historical analysis; in the humanities, through the study of great traditions.

Anything else?

The person cannot be provincial but has to have some understanding of other cultures, other times. And there should be a serious encounter with moral and ethical questions, and some knowledge in depth. Our hope is that education doesn't end with a degree but is a lifetime process.

Do you agree with Charles Eliot, the turn-of-the-century president of Harvard, that a five-foot shelf could hold the books necessary for a liberal education?

Yes, if he meant that there is such a thing as a self-taught student. I've met many people who'd never been to school and were obviously self-taught. There is no substitute for an inquiring mind and books.

So Shakespeare, Plato and Aristotle still count?

Those sound like pretty good names to me.

But I assume you disagree with Trinity College President Theodore Lockwood, who says that a curriculum will make little difference when "the deeper malaise is that teachers don't know their own fundamental beliefs about general education."

This view is another paralyzing counsel of despair. I have never argued that the core is a panacea, but it tries to create a common denominator. What we teach and believe is important. This country is having a hard time arriving at a consensus of its own beliefs. Universities aren't islands; they reflect the outside world. People in them can't agree on everything when the rest of the country is united primarily by what it dislikes.

Why become an educated person?

Education gives you a better understanding of yourself and the world. You aren't necessarily better at driving a car or doing your income tax. But the hope is that education will allow you, by understanding, to enjoy life more, because understanding life contributes to its meaning.