Cabbages and Kings
(This is the second in a series of three articles. The third installment will appear in tomorrow's issue of the Crimson.)
The introduction of the broad curriculum and the elective system at Harvard, based on the large lecture method of teaching, has had the tendency to result in a student product noted for superficial thinking and scattered knowledge useful primarily for examinations.
As the College population increased the administration was not entirely ignorant of the effect of the method it was using, and the term paper, tutorial, honors theses, and general examinations were given a new importance as compensating factors. These four things are on the right track, but they have their drawbacks. The trouble with the term paper or half-term paper is that: 1) if it is short, the student can do it in several days or a week and the rest of the time go on about his business; 2) if it is long, the student is forced to specialize to an undesirable degree on one minute point; and 3) criticism and discussion of the student's work may consist of nothing more than a pencilled grade from a harassed anonymous section man, or at most a ten or fifteen minute discussion with a tutor or section man alone on the specific problems of the paper.
The tutorial system, or what is left of it, is at the moment very poor primarily because the tutors are too overworked to give each tutee any real attention. The College says, with justification, that it cannot afford a great many tutors of high calibre or any at all in some departments. The honors thesis, which I consider very valuable, is limited, as is tutorial, to a restricted group of students.
The only thorough-going solution seems to be the general examination, but here again we have the cramming, frantic last minute marshalling of seattered, half-forgotten facts, and a few hours of furious exam writing. The oral exam would seem to obviate this, but, having given a man sixteen courses in four years, it is a little hard to admit that you haven't really taught him very much, and, consequently, the oral examiners have to set their sights fairly low if they don't intend to flunk out a large number of students.
The College's philosophy in the recent past seems to have been "Here is a library, here is a lecturer, here are a few examinations--take it or leave it." If the lecturer happened to have that rare ability to stimulate the mind of the student by mere lecturing, so much the better, but this seems to be only a secondary consideration in the employment of instructors. Harvard University is often more interested in brilliant research, to the advantage of the University and at the expense of the College. The result is that Harvard's reputation as a great research center has boomed and the College's reputation has been enhanced thereby, but the College as an organic thing in itself is slipping, and it may not be long before that fact is known in areas outside the Yard.
The administration has recognized this danger and has pioneered in the idea of General Education. I am heartily in favor of the General Education idea as an answer to the question "What should be taught?" but it does not answer the question "How shall it be taught?"
Another aspect of the problem of Harvard's teaching methods that cannot be ignored is the social organization of the College and its effect on the individual. This is closely related to the educational method, as I shall try to point out in my conclusion. The CRIMSON has printed a series of editorials this year stating the facts of the social organization, or rather lack of organization, in the College. The picture those articles gives is of extreme heterogeneity and individualism compensated by attachment to intense little cliques either in clubs, activities, or informal groups. Having lived in the College three years I feel that this is sadly true. I am not against individualism, but there is no denying that the average man is happier when part of an integrated group and in fact the essential problem for most people at Harvard, and elsewhere, is loneliness. This is true in any society and the interesting thing to note is what groups the society breaks into. One would hope, at least, that in a highly intellectual community the primary divisions would be along lines of intellectual interest, but Harvard "apathy," with a very few exceptions, is nowhere more apparent than in the failure of those with common intellectual interest to come together.
House System Not Working
The Freshman at Harvard in particular wants desperately to find a group to which he can attach himself, and, since there is little or no opportunity to meet his intellectual colleagues in the lecture hall or even in the section, he turns to some formal or informal social group whose only common denominator is an interest in football games, cocktail parties, and desultory bull sessions.
The House system was supposed to fill this gap and in prewar days it did so to some extent. President Lowell's idea of the intellectual exchange over the dinner table was an admirable ideal but has not worked in practice. I have known students in the Houses who eat together religiously, not because they had the slightest thing in common (which was evidenced by their conversation) but because they happened by mere chance to be thrown together as roommates and, knowing no one else, formed themselves into a little group of fellow sufferers. On rare occasion I have seen these same people in contact with their real intellectual confreres and the satisfaction they got from such contacts was very clear.