Higher education today is too often characterized by a trade-school approach to knowledge. More and more students now rush through a prescribed curriculum as quickly as possible, treading a narrow tight-rope to a job or a professional school. In this era where mere factual knowledge frequently serves as an index of intelligence, the University has symbolized the broad intellectual maturation that learning should be.
The Educational Policy Committee's new plan for a wide system of advanced standing and placement continues this tradition. The proposals fail only where they tend to make education a three-year process, by providing for the admission of certain students as sophomores.
At the plan's heart is a thorough revision and expansion of the present placement system. Too often, students waste time in courses beneath their ability simply to satisfy prerequisite requirements. The Committee's proposals call for the administration of placement tests in languages, English, mathematics, history, and science to determine the level at which a student should work. But no provision is made for the use of essay tests to supplement the objective techniques used at the present time. Such tests are necessary, for in addition to measuring writing ability, they could weigh a student's grasp of concepts, not facts alone.
Merely providing a placement system is not enough. The Committee realizes that no incentive can ever prod the student who is so grade-conscious that his intellectual curiosity is dead. But it has sensibly asked that grade requirements for scholarship holders electing advanced courses be reduced. In the past, the fear of low grades and a resulting reduction of scholarship stipends has been a main factor in keeping these men from taking courses that tax the limits of their abilities.
Details of the new program have not yet been charted. But is is important that any final draft contain the express provision that no credit be given for courses by-passed. The aim of the plan should be to make a student's four years in the College more worthwhile, not to provide him with an easy path to three-year graduation. For this reason the Committee's proposal to admit a number of men directly into the Houses as sophomores seems unsound. Those given sophomore status would have their total course requirements reduced to 12 from the usual 16. Although the Committee would encourage these students to stay on for the full four years, it is unrealistic to think they would continue in the College instead of moving on to a job or a professional school.
Three years in the College is too short a time; there is more t a Harvard education than a set number of courses. If the University did not recognize this, it would long ago have given way to the trade-school policies, and General Education would never have been born. The whole of the tutorial program and the valuable extra-curricular activities need four years for full benefit to the student. If any time must be pared from the process of education, it should come from the preparatory and not the college years.
Reduced Course Load
Such a plan, and a good one, is the Committee's proposal to admit a few exceptional students after three years of secondary school. The senior year in school is often un-stimulating, a duplication of work to come later in college. The only argument against these early admissions is the largely unsuccessful experiment the Ford Foundation made at Yale, Columbia, and Chicago. But these "pre-induction" scholarships were given to students sixteen or under, with no more than two years of high school. Those coming to Harvard under the new plan would be a year older and should be carefully screened to prove their emotional maturity.
A proposal that would seem a great departure from past practice concerns the omission of formal courses from the process of education. A reduction in the number of courses required would be given to students of proven ability and maturity to free them for research or broad general study. But the proposal is no innovation at all. A similar ruling, also allowing a two course reduction, was passed by the Faculty in 1926 and has never been altered. The earlier ruling, like the proposed new one, leaves the final decision on course reduction up to individual departments. Generally, each department provides for the omission of one course in senior honors tutorial. The whole question of course reduction will undoubtedly be re-examined now by both the departments and the forthcoming Committee on Special Standing; extension of the privilege to the junior year, however, would be unwise. Research is exciting, but in inexperienced hands will too often be mis-directed. Even under close tutorial supervision, a junior does not possess the background of formal study necessary to make research worthwhile. And because a students is first exposed to individual tutorial in the junior year, no judgment should be made until then of his ability to work under the responsibility of a reduced course load.
Considered as a whole, the Committee's plan is sound. Except on the point of sophomore admission, the proposals will serve to stimulate the intellectual interests of the superior student and to prevent repetition of previous work. The plan can also have far-reaching influence on the General Education program. This aspect of the proposals will be discussed in tomorrow's editorial.