(A student committee is now engaged in revising the Student Council's constitution. Through all the recent agitation for Council revision the problem of what should be the Council's function has been much debated. This historical article indicates that constant evaluation of the University's long-range policy toward undergraduates, summed up in reports to the administration, is the Council's most valuable and lasting function.)
The tutorial system as we know it today is partially a product of a group of undergraduates who in 1931 were interested in improving Harvard education.
President Lowell had the recommendations of a special group of students in mind when he readily accepted an offer of $12,000,000 to establish the House system in the College.
Another group of undergraduates once presented the Administration with a plan that was adopted almost immediately as the present inter-House athletic system.
University policy as we know it today is in many cases the direct result of such "interested students" of past generations who creatively criticized their College life--intellectual, social, and athletic--and "told the Dean" about it.
These men were the Student Council. They didn't wait until they were overly dissatisfied, nor did they were overly dissatisfied, nor did they wait until the Dean brought them a problem. They set up principles for the type of education they wanted, examined the existing methods, then created better schemes for fulfilling their chosen ends. During the period from the late 1920's to the war, recommendations to the administration were of such a consistently high quality that many of them were put into action and are evident today in College policy.
Anticipated General Ed
General Education, perhaps the most significant new movement in the College today, was presaged by Council education surveys in 1939 and 1942.
The goals of liberal education, cited in the first report were strikingly similar to those adopted six years later by the Harvard Committee on the Objectives of General Education in a Free Society. Important aims of a liberal college, according to the Council survey, were those of freeing the mind from ignorance and prejudice and giving the student an "opportunity to develop considered standards of value." To do this the College must give the student some idea of our "common tradition of human experience" and also attempt to provide him with the "intellectual tools with which he can confront new problems successfully."
For the College to foster this "common tradition" and provide "intellectual tools," the report recommended a) that each of the "main branches of knowledge" be covered, and b) that new courses should be organized to provide "an intelligible view of each of the large areas of knowledge." It is noteworthy that recommendation a) is now realized in present distribution requirements, while part b) forms the organizing principle of our General Education courses now.
The 1942 Council survey on "Necessary Elements of a Liberal Education" slammed the College's inadequate distribution system. "Two Harvard students can follow such unconnected courses of study that they are unable to converse intelligently with each other about their college work," it is said. This has since become a stock phrase with University leaders in their emphasis on the necessity of a common body of knowledge in the school for all students to draw from. This common knowledge is to be provided by General Education, they say.
In another part of this report, there is a plea for distribution courses that will stress "values and standards." To see how this idea has been borne out in action we need only to look at one of the General Education Courses now taught on the Freshman level--"Individual and Social Values in History, Drama, Fiction, and Philosophy," better known as Humanities 3.
To say that these two Student Council reports "caused General Education" would be a gross simplification of the cause and effect pattern. Doubtless there were the same forces operating on these student valuators as later affected the faculty framers of the General Education policy. But the fact remains that the 12 members of the faculty "Committee on Objectives" carefully considered these Council reports and actually "lifted" some parts totally. The student's view was being accepted. And the effects of this acceptance are with us today.
Changed Athletic Setup
Inter-House athletics fell into the Council's progressive hands in 1936 when a five man committee, of its own initiative, made a careful study of the athletic system, which it felt was not functioning to the utmost good of the students.
Up to that time a completely informal organization of House athletics had been the practice. The Council committee counted the number of men participating in the various sports, went down to Yale to look around, and came out with the conclusion that informality need not mean lack of organization. Things could be kept comfortably unregimented and voluntary and yet still be arranged well enough so that people would at least show up for games and make some activity possible.
The council made its recommendations to the Dean, and the following academic year saw students appointed to paying positions as House athletic secretaries and assistants, the formation of an inter-House Athletic Council, and the gathering of the whole system under a University Intra-Mural Athletic directory.
Everything recommended by the Council had been adopted except the method of finance for the new arrangement. The University had decided to provide the money rather than impose the compulsory fee suggested by the Council.
This was thhe "most fruitful activity of the Council so far as immediate results were concerned," according to A. Chester Hanford, who was Dean of the College then. In a like manner, the Council's 1926 Report on Education had perhaps the most lastingly palpable results, for it contained well considered recommendations on the "residential college," or House system.
Harvard College was too big for the gentlemen on the Council then. In a very large, impersonal group the students found it hard to make friends and tended to ban together in small cliques of men with their own special interests and positions. The most valuable element of college living was absent, they said, because a student couldn't meet men of diverse backgrounds and interests.
Living with all different types of men is the surest antidote for "provincialism and prejudice" and is a promoter of "common understanding among diverse elements of the classes," the Council stated. On the strength of this conviction, it recommended the establishment of undergraduate "colleges." Each was to have its own dining and common facilities, and would house around 300 Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors--"whose interests should represent a fair cross-section of undergraduate life."
Here again the Council admitted that the idea was not new with it. But this does not matter. The important thing is that again the students view was going forth--and again it brought results. Two years later President Lowell felt no hesitation about accepting Edward S. Harkness' gift of the House system, for he knew his undergraduates wanted it. Lowell later consulted them extensively on the buildings.
Tutorial and General Examinations provided the Council with material for another very important and effective report, in 1931. This report was responsible for such present institutions as Junior general examinations and exemptions of Senior honors candidates from hour exams.
Recent Councils Don't Advise
Other reports made up to the war are too numerous to mention. An alarming fact, however, is that, with the exception of the "Poskanzer Report" and one or two others, the reports have not been either so numerous or of such high quality since the war as they were before. Perhaps an undue concern with daily affairs has kept the Council from doing such work as merited praise from Dean Hanford before the war. "There is not a council in any other college which has done so much or has exerted a greater influence on educational developments than the Harvard group," he said. The recent Councils have exerted little influence except on problems the Dean has specifically asked for opinions on.
There is no glory in advising the administration on matters of long range policy. Recommendations for the most part are buried in Dean's reports in the Widener archives. But the results of these recommendations are obvious and lasting, though they reflect little directly on the personalities of their producers.
The true value of Student Council shows up in the College anywhere from 5 to 20 years after the Council has gone. If the present Council can be reorganized so as to best fulfill its advisory function, perhaps twenty years from now we will not be disappointed.