Mark of the Beast
The Inglis Lecture for 1932, by William Setchel Learned, Ph.D. '12, of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is a remarkable little volume, which may well prove to be of much more than passing significance as a good piece of work in an interesting series. What the volume advocates would be radical, even at Harvard, where the principle involved has been recognized ever since President Lowell introduced the general examination. If it can be put into a word, it is the active abandonment of courses and marks in courses as the ground-plan of an education in school or college. Give up altogether the counting of credits, says Dr. Learned, let us an intellectual objective large enough, definite enough, remote enough to be a continuous challenge to serious effort. Guide the student individually in his learning. Measure his achievement of the final objective not by the opinions of his teachers as to what he accomplishes in covering parts of it or aspects of it in their courses, but by a direct and comprehensive test of ultimate power over the whole body of intellectual material to be mastered.
It has been said that courses are valuable, indeed necessary, because they enable the college to teach large numbers of students. Any other scheme means individual teaching, or tutoring, which is expensive and for which no college can easily obtain a sufficient number of skillful men. To this argument the realist who opposes courses would reply, first, that large numbers are not a necessary condition of the problem, for colleges can give up the ambition to be large; second, that the course as a teaching device is not the object of attack at all, but rather the course as a unit of credit. The teaching of groups--not merely by lecturing, but by discussion and other classroom procedures--ought certainly not to be abandoned; it ought rather to be cultivated. But why obscure the realities of learning by inducing a false and perfunctory interest in the accumulation of marks for courses? And why insist that group teaching shall be done in units of uniform length? Let the clever teacher go on teaching groups--i.e., giving courses--but let the content of the course and the known abilities of the students dictate the duration of the teaching. The course has hampered the development of good teaching by robbing it of freedom and flexibility.
It has also been said that students cannot be held to their work except through marks. The answer is that students in college who must be kept there by policing had better leave. If a student wants to know how he is getting on, there are plenty of ways of testing him. If the college wants to dismiss a waster, there are plenty of ways of convicting him. Using marks in courses for discipline; promotion, rank lists, prizes, and graduation is simply an administrative convenience which obscures the real business of education--actual individual progress in learning--and centers attention in the wrong place. Harvard Alumni Bulletin.